Saturday, October 1, 2016

Searching for Soul in Television and Movies

After watching yesterday's second episode of the new MacGyver reboot, Mark and I had a mini-discussion in the comments of my recap post regarding the show's search for a soul.  Mark called the episode "generic, boilerplate CBS action show fare" which led me to wonder if that was actually the goal: to pattern something after other commercially successful shows in hopes that it will follow.  That may make sense from a short-term, financial perspective, but I would hope that most of the people who work in television also aspire to create art that has a soul -- something that will stand the test of time and be talked about 30 years later, just like the original MacGyver.

This discussion led me to wonder: what makes a tv show (or movie) soulful?  Clearly this is a subjective question and what is soulful for one person will not be soulful for another.  And what do I even mean by soulful?  How about this? It's a show or movie for which in 30 years from now:
  • There are websites with fans from all over the world still talking about it.
  • You will insist on showing it to your children when they are old enough because of its quality, its distinctiveness, and how much it meant to you.
  • You will occasionally (or even frequently) watch it yourself.
  • There are plenty of rewatchable moments that you look forward to seeing again and again. 
  • You will have wallpapers on your computer, t-shirts, and other momentos to remind you of the show.
  • You may even read some crazy blogger who is still talking about it 30 years later.
So back to my question: what makes a tv show (or movie) soulful?  In particular I'm focusing on drama and action/adventure (rather than comedy), and I've come up with 4 key pieces:
  1. Setting -- Where does the story take place?  Is it memorable?  Is it distinctive?  Do you like the place?  Are you immersed to the point where you feel like you're really there and can touch it?
  2. Antagonist -- How strong is the antagonist in the story?  Is it a villain who seems unstoppable? Is there a task that seems impossible?  The harder the journey, the more rewarding the triumph.
  3. Problem Solving -- How does the hero overcome their obstacles?  Is it something clever and impressive, or is it unrealistic and uninspiring?  At some point you should be saying to yourself, "I can't see how he's getting out of this."
  4. Music -- Is the music mediocre, memorable, or iconic?  Would you listen to it on your iPod or in the car while driving?
There are two more pieces right below my top 4 that are worth mentioning.  First (or fifth) is the likability of the hero -- the more likable the hero, the more invested you are in the story.  This is normally pretty standard since most heroes tend to be likable, but not always.  For instance my parents tried to get me to start watching Person of Interest, but I found Jim Caviezel's character to be robotic and uncharismatic, and his computer savvy friend was equally uninspiring.

Second (or sixth) is the seriousness of the show and the situation. A little humor in a drama or action/adventure can be a good thing, but is the tone of the show still serious or does the humor or the plot itself become silly enough that it becomes more like a joke?

So now it's time for some case studies!

I guess the greatest moment in world history is as good a place to start as any.
  1. Setting -- The producers went all out in creating an Arabian desert town, and the sand dunes at Pismo Beach create a perfect setting for the second part of the gambit.
  2. Antagonist -- Nothing memorable about the bad guys here -- in fact, they're pretty inept (except for the one soldier that actually hits the giant balloon with a bullet).
  3. Problem Solving -- the epitome of MacGyver's problem solving prowess.  Using a map in 5 different ways to solve 5 different problems. 
  4. Music -- one of the greatest scores of all time, possibly written by God himself.  If I had a CD of this music, I'd play it every day.
Final Verdict: 3 out of 4.  But this is a great example of how strengths in one criteria can compensate for deficiencies in other criteria.  In this case the antagonists are weak, but the problem solving and music are at such a world-class level that it can safely be referred to as the best 5 minutes the universe has ever known.

Let's turn our attention to last night's episode.
  1. Setting -- The bulk of the story takes place in Venezuela.  But does it ever really feel like we're in Venezuela? The answer is no, it doesn't. There are a lot of factors that go into this, from location scouting to set design to music, and there needed to be at least one scene that really felt like we were in South America, even if it meant flying Lucas and George to Mexico or Central America for a day of filming.  Capturing that authenticity would have been money well spent.
  2. Antagonist -- We basically know nothing about Barrios the arms dealer and only see him right at the very end.  We have no idea how threatening or competent he is, and there's little satisfaction in capturing him when we don't know him.
  3. Problem Solving -- it's clear from everyone I've heard from that the MacGvyerisms move way too fast in the reboot.  It's only meaningful if we know and can process what MacGyver is doing, and it made him more relatable when in the original version he looked around the room for a minute and thought about what to do.  But so far in the reboot I can't appreciate where he's finding all the materials or how he's able to put them together because it's happening too quickly.  One more note about the reboot -- I think they should get rid of Riley (sorry, Riley).  She's a fine character and a good actress, but what is the fun in seeing someone push a few buttons on a computer and then say, "We found the bad guy in San Francisco" or "I shut down the cameras in the compound." There's no challenge in that which we as the audience can relate to, so it's not compelling.
  4. Music -- I've heard many MacGyver fans talk about wanting a CD with the original MacGyver music.  In fact, you could fill at least 5 CDs with the amazing scores that aired on that show. Was there any part of the Metal Saw score that you'd listen to in the car on your way to work? I don't mean to be too hard on the musicians working on the show -- it's much easier said than done to create memorable soundtracks on an episode by episode basis.  That said, if I was in charge of the reboot, I'd call Randy Edelman or Ken Harrison and say, "Name your price."
Final Verdict: 0 out of 4.  

A few other MacGyver Notes:
The Prodigal (my #2 episode): 4 out of 4, with world class problem solving and music.
Mask of the Wolf / Ghost Ship: the setting is everything for me.
Honest Abe / The Mountain of Youth: My two least favorite episodes fits my 6th corollary.  When the plot and/or the dialogue drifts into the farcical, then the house of cards comes swiftly tumbling down.

An underrated movie that didn't do well at the box office but has many devoted fans (and is in fact in the process of being remade).
  1. Setting -- 1930's Hollywood.  Fantastic locale which you feel like you're a part of.
  2. Antagonist -- The hero, a down-on-his-luck pilot,  is only up against the mob and the Nazis. No big deal!
  3. Problem Solving -- Great ending when he's surrounded by the mob and the Nazis (at the Griffith Park Observatory, no less) and you're wondering how in the world is he getting out of this one.
  4. Music -- One of the best Disney songs ever.
Final Verdict: 4 out of 4.

Let's talk about my favorite Bond movie!
  1. Setting -- My favorite are all the Germany scenes.  Feels like a great place for a spy movie.
  2. Antagonist -- The lead bad guy is a little kooky ("I'll destroy the world and then cover it on the evening news!") but Stamper, his big blond henchman, is a great villain.
  3. Problem Solving -- One of my favorite things about the movie.  Lots of memorable escapes by Bond, including the pilot ejector seat in the beginning, the ingenius use of the cell phone to thwart Soft Touch's Vincent Schiavelli, and the clever removal of Stamper's knife from his body to cut his vest loose at the end.
  4. Music -- An incredible soundtrack and one that I still listen to.
Final Verdict: 4 out of 4.

Now let's talk about the greatest movie of all time!
  1. Setting -- Utah red rocks, Venice canals, Austrian castle, German countryside, Middle Eastern desert and temple.  Sounds good to me.
  2. Antagonist -- "Germany has declared war on the Jones boys!"  You want long odds, menacing villains, and high stakes?  How about battling the Nazis (including a face to face meeting with Hitler himself) for the Holy Grail with the fate of the world at stake?
  3. Problem Solving -- I'd say the end of the movie has that covered.
  4. Music -- Perfection.
The entire movie is literally one immensely rewatchable scene after another, and the underrated opening (where Indy is a young kid looking for the Cross of Coronado) is brilliantly crafted and sets up the entire movie.

Now compare that to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull which was panned by just about everyone. The acting is fine and the dialogue is ok (I like some of the banter between Indy and Marion). But in trying to think of even one scene that I would really look forward to watching again, I can't think of a single one (though I did only see the movie twice and don't remember everything).  The setting and action scenes are overly CGI'ed, the villains are underdeveloped (like Indy's sidekick who turns on him, but we barely know who he is to begin with), and there aren't any memorable or clever escapes at least that I can remember.  Probably doesn't help that Harrison Ford was 66 at the time.

Other TV Shows

  • Burn Notice -- I'm currently watching it for the first time and just started Season 5. Michael is a competent and likable hero, and the Miami setting is a big draw.  There are lots of colorful bad guys too including Carla, Larry, Simon, Vaughn, Strickler, Gilroy, Kendra, and Brennen. On the other hand, the "Westenisms" move too fast (similar to the new MacGyverisms), and there haven't been too many episodes that have really resonated with me emotionally.  So I'm not sure that I would rewatch it again, but I'm still enjoying it.
  • Hawaii Five 0 -- similar to Burn Notice in that the setting is a major selling point and a way to differentiate the show from anything else currently on tv, and the characters are great and work well together.  Also like Burn Notice, I don't see myself rewatching it again once it's off the air.  Other than the episode about the Japanese internment camps which I brought up with Peter Lenkov, there aren't enough truly memorable moments where I could see saying to my kids someday, "You gotta go back and watch this series."
  • 24 / Prison Break -- I put these two in the same category.  Both are a bit on the dark side for my tastes, but they're so smartly written that I would go back and watch them again some day (and in fact I rewatched the first 5 seasons of 24 a few years ago). And the villains are such bad people that it's satisfying to see them taken down.
  • Quantum Leap -- I'm almost two-thirds through my rewatch of the series, and it's been a real pleasure.  The major selling point for me on this show is the likability of the hero.  Sam Beckett is just such a good guy, and his friendship with Al makes for a great partnership.  Add that to unique settings for each episode, compelling storylines, and significant challenges, and you have a recipe for a soulful show.
If you've made it this far, then God bless you and thank you for humoring me by reading my stream of consciousness.  I could go on and on and cite the seemingly all-powerful army of techno bad guys in Enemy of the State, or the incredibly clever, against all odds legal maneuver of Lt. Caffee in A Few Good Men, the colorful setting and music evoking 1840's Spanish California in The Mask of Zorro, and the beautiful farmland in Field of Dreams which was shot on location in Dyersville, Iowa, but I've rambled for long enough.  If these 10,000 words on the topic aren't enough, check out Mark's post on what makes a great MacGyver episode.

At the end of the day, this is just one man's opinion.  And I live in a society where The Bachelor is a ratings juggernaut and Donald Trump could be weeks away from being the leader of the free world, so maybe my opinion isn't representative when it comes to tv networks trying to find the right recipe to appeal to the American people.  But I still believe that there's a place for good storytelling on television and that quality and ratings need not be mutually exclusive.


  1. Quite a stream-of-consciousness rant! Nicely put together for all intents and purposes. I don't have an organized response but indulge my own cherry-picked stream-of-consciousness feedback if you would....

    I'm guessing CBS has a framework from which they want their shows structured, which is why so many of them are so narratively interchangeable. Perhaps Lenkov is running into that interference, at least for the opening episodes given that they were under such a time crunch after the first pilot was scrapped. We'll see how things progress. I'm not giving up on it yet but the consensus opinion seems to be that last night's episode was the storytelling equivalent of the invisible man.

    It is a "subjective question" regarding soul. One of the reboot reviews I read referred to the original as a merely "serviceable action-adventure series". As opposed to what I thought to myself? It's pretty clear based on any online search of DVD reviews that plenty of people found the show that we're still obsessing about 30 years later to be as vanilla as "Jake and the Fatman".....right before raving about a show like "Cheers" which never did much for me.

    Did you start watching "Person of Interest" from the beginning or in the middle of the run? It was entertaining early on but got bizarre beyond comprehension around halfway through its run.....yet critics adored it throughout. As you said though, I'd be surprised if there are "Person of Interest" websites and fan podcasts being done 30 years ago. It had more soul than the "MacGyver" reboot has shown so far, but not a complete soul.

    Interesting point about the inauthenticity of the Venezuela setting in last night's "MacGyver" reboot. You should take a look back to "Black Rhino" episode of the original for a contrast. Most memorable was the scene where MacGyver and Kate were driving to Nabo Sugar, and the streets were lined with extras in African garb, very much giving the viewer the authentic feel of being in sub-Saharan Africa. And while I know you don't like the episode "Second Chance", check it out again sometime for the location work. They did an incredible job....way better than a couple passing seconds of CGI flavellas in Caracas conveyed.

    Great point about Barrios the arms dealer, an invisible villain in an invisible hour of television. I'd prefer most of the non-MacGyver cast members in the reboot get the "re-boot" beyond just Riley. Patricia Thornton has given us little more to work with as a character than Barrios so far. Riley at least had some witty banter with Bozer last night, even though that whole scene had no business in a "MacGyver" episode. Yet we'll get more of it!

    1. Haha, yeah probably not a lot of Jake and the Fatman podcasts/forums out there. Quantum Leap on the other hand, even though it was not a ratings champ in its day, lives on with forums, podcasts, and lots of books (both about the show and fiction).

      I only saw 1 or 2 episodes of Person of Interest, it must have been early on because my parents were still watching (they stopped because it got weird as you said). The few episodes I saw didn't offer me anything -- it was a dumb overall concept with unlikable characters.

      The MacGyver set designers did an awesome job, and you're absolutely right about Black Rhino -- it really does feel like Africa. I think today it's so easy to just do CGI and other tricks that production teams get lazy or cost-conscious and don't sweat the details like they used to do. "Every Time She Smiles" is another good one -- I really feel like I'm in Eastern Europe when I watch that episode.

      Yeah Patricia Thornton has been a very weak character so far. Each word I write about the reboot is probably decreasing my chances for any more CBS cast interviews, but I gotta be honest!

  2. Our assessments of both "Burn Notice" and "Hawaii Five-O" aren't far apart. I've yet to be inspired to get "Burn Notice" on DVD. I watched Sunday night reruns before bed for a couple of years on the local syndicated affiliate and enjoyed the re-viewings thoroughly, but I'm not chomping at the bit for a full revisit just yet. I'd say I'm more likely than you to do so at some point in the future but as you say, the series' plot lines lack the magic touch that invites and even requires repeat viewings. There are a few "Hawaii Five-O's" per season I seek out in reruns to watch again. They really nail some episodes and they hold up great to repeat viewings. But in terms of DVD purchase I'd be less inclined to seek that out than "Burn Notice". Most weeks, it's just a fun Friday night popcorn show. "Quantum Leap" is another show I expect to rewatch a select number of episodes again without a revisit of the entire series anytime soon.

    I've rewatched all of the "24" seasons besides season 6 and the abbreviated ninth season from 2014. I feel like that show has repeated itself a bit but those early seasons in particular hold up fantastically to repeat viewings. As for "Prison Break", I've watched season 1 four times now....and every time I do I seem to watch at least three episodes a day it's so excellent.

    That's enough rambling for after midnight but I appreciate the thought that went into this post and must point out that your 10,000 words were entirely inspired by "MacGyver" reboot, episode 2 "Metal Saw". Pretty sure few people tuned into CBS last night had that much of a takeaway from that particular hour of television.

    1. "Pretty sure few people tuned into CBS last night had that much of a takeaway from that particular hour of television." That is true!

      After I was done I went back and looked at your guest post and noticed some overlap, like your #1 and #2 (villains and threat level) correspond to my "antagonist", and your production values and international settings correspond to my "setting", and you cite the music also.

      I wonder sometimes if they're trying too hard to gear these shows to people in their 20s rather than people in their 60s and 70s. I understand key demographics and all that, but there are a lot of people out there like my parents who have a lot of time to watch tv at night and are just looking for something halfway decent to watch.

    2. The 18-49 demographic is, for all intents and purposes, all the networks care about. Older people may watch the most television, but they buy the fewest products (or the least diverse product selection) and in television it's all about advertising revenue. For this reason, NBC had solid hits on their hands back in 1992 with "Matlock", "In the Heat of the Night", and "The Golden Girls", three long-running shows that were past their prime but still pulling in good numbers. NBC dropped all three of them in 1992 because their respective audiences skewed decisively older. They made the gamble that even if their replacements on the schedule didn't get as high of ratings, they would still bring in more ad revenue because advertisers would be more willing to spend money during shows with younger audience demographics that are easier to reach with ads.

    3. I'd still think that older people have more disposable income and also a lot of needs (like medicines) that it would be worthwhile to target them, but maybe that's why I'm not in advertising. And with Netflix and DVRs, seems like traditional commercials are seen by less people than ever before, which is why networks pay so much money for rights to live events like sports.

    4. You can certainly put on shows that appeal to seniors and find plenty of advertisers for Hoverrounds and Colonial Penn life insurance and the like, but because of their limited market appeal, you're gonna have to sell them at a much lower rate than you'd fetch for a program that has appeal with a younger demographic more likely to buy new cars, beer, and cola, among other things.

  3. I did finally watch ep2 and *snoooooooooooooore*. I kept having to pause it b/c I was also making dinner, though I needn't have bothered b/c every time I did, it felt like I should've moved through more than 5 boring minutes of nothing-plot. This guy doesn't do anything MacGyver-like even when he's MacGyvering. And that makes me sad.

    As for shows that hit your 4 marks -

    Psych is a good one. It's a comedy-drama series, but it hits pretty well and has a pretty big following that is STILL raving for new episodes.

    Setting - Santa Barbara, CA. It filmed in Vancouver, BC, but they used that to their advantage w/ the ocean-side locations and relatively nice (or nice-looking) weather. And for a few episodes, they skipped off into the mountains for colder climes.

    Antagonist - it's a 'crook of the week' style show w/ a bit of soap opera woven in. And since the point of the show is 'wacky antics', the crooks weren't always the brightest bulbs in the pack, but some of them were pretty slick.

    Problem Solving - Sort of the name of the game here. Shawn's a fake psychic detective who consults for the police department. If they slack on the problem solving, there isn't a show. There are sometimes the sloppy slip ups, but they're not frequent and usually forgivable b/c the show is meant to be kinda goofy.

    Music - 80's fan's wet dream. This show pulls from some of the corniest, cheesiest 80's music ever and somehow makes that shit work. (Essentially, the cast and crew are all big 80's dorks, so they wrote it in.)

    Let's try Suits (at least s1-3)
    Setting: Manhattan. They film in Toronto, but they have a lot of establishing shots they have as 'stock' that were filmed in NYC. They use downtown Toronto and place yellow cabs and food vendors on the sides of the road when necessary, crowd the sidewalks and the streets, etc to give it that 'downtown Manhattan near Wall St' feel. These folks can dress a set.

    Antagonist: They're lawyers. Sometimes they *are* the antagonists. But they've had some pretty great bad guys show up to ruin their day along the run. Daniel Hardman is still one of the most loved-hated characters on the show and he keeps coming back like a bad rash.

    Problem Solving: We have a fake lawyer and a bunch of real lawyers who, essentially, get these hard cases to push through. If these guys can't problem solve, they can't be high-powered corporate attorneys. Sometimes their problem solving is a little on the 'fantastical' side, but that's usually for drama purposes and, also, to keep the supporting cast from getting over-crowded, which works to the show's advantage. Too many characters is a bad thing (hint hint nu!MacGyver).

    Music: OMFG. In s1-3 the music is goddamned amazing! They got some really great lesser-known artists and such. I sought out nearly ALL of it. There were whole Tumblrs devoted to listing off the 'songs of Suits'. The music guy for the show would post track lists on twitter after the show b/c people would always ask about it. (He actually still does this, but the show apparently spends all their money on actor salaries now b/c the music has started to slip a bit and there's like 1 track per episode now.)

    1. I've never seen either "Psych" or "Suits" but have heard some positive things about both from people whose opinions I respect. Your plug gives me more motivation to sample both.

    2. Yeah I'm in the same boat, haven't seen them but your recommendation makes them sound worth sampling.

    3. To keep plugging the USA Network shows, I think "White Collar" fits your pattern too:

      Setting: NYC - and they filmed there, putting the city to good use almost as an extension of the characters.

      Antagonist: Neal's a convicted bond forger and all-around con man, so sometimes *he* is the antagonist, but mostly he works for the good guys. However, he's got a lot of skeletons that come calling and they're usually pretty smart too - since a lot of them are also con men.

      Problem Solving: Con man racket - though Neal is typically using his skills to help the FBI. There are times when he's gotta work out some pretty on-the-fly stuff to get himself out of a jam. I mean, not every plan can go down with base jumping off a skyscraper onto Wall St. =)

      Music: lots of old school stuff here, b/c Neal has sort of a Rat Pack vibe and his landlady is Diahann Carroll and her character was around during some old speak-easy days and there are a couple episodes where she sings (at least once w/ Matt Bomer); incidentals composed by Jon Ehrlich (who also did music for House, MD)

    4. I watched two USA shows in the last 10 years that I really liked....."Burn Notice" and "Graceland". Did you watch or enjoy either of those?

    5. I've seen a couple episodes of "Burn Notice" but haven't yet been able to really get into it. I like the actor - he was on "The Pretender" - but I haven't managed to find the hook in that show for me yet. I never watched "Graceland".

      I actually almost didn't watch "Suits" b/c I didn't want to throw another lawyer-drama show into my collection at the time, but I moved half-way across the country and needed something to occupy myself since I didn't have cable and hadn't really gotten into the streaming thing on Netflix, since it was still pretty new, so I found eps of Suits and was hooked from the pilot (which was actually filmed in NYC before they shifted to Toronto).

  4. Other shows that have a long history:

    "Star Trek" - most of the incarnations
    "Doctor Who" - which got picked up and continued, rather than rebooted
    "Highlander" still has folks hanging around - and there are frequently rumblings of rebooting this franchise too, which terrifies me almost as much as the MacGyver one
    "Stargate SG-1" - ended almost 10 yrs ago and still has a solid fanbase - I mean, I just got back from a 700-person fan-run convention *g* and there are dozens of other cons around the globe for it still

    Of the ones I've just listed here, I still watch most of them. I skip through a lot of Trek from time to time; I'm doing a slow re-watch of SG1; I run through Highlander episodes every few years or so. I don't watch much Doctor Who b/c I don't have access to most of it - and there's like 8000 episodes, but it's still wildly popular, talked about, cos-played, fic'd, etc. So, I figure these will be around for quite a while.

    As for Psych and Suits that I mentioned above - I've been through the whole of Psych about 3 x's (it just got pulled from Netflix) and I re-watch Suits about once/yr or so - at least s1-3. Sometimes I do 4. 5 was just last year. And the show is popular everywhere. It's the #1 less-than-legally downloaded show in India. And if they manage to turn around the lazy-ass writing they've got going on in s6, they could pull off that 'still talking about it in 30 years' thing. The characters are dynamic and strong and they have compelling stories, but the story they're telling right now isn't as smart as they think it is.

    1. Did you watch Bakula's Star Trek run and how was that compared to the others?

    2. I did watch Enterprise and it started off pretty good if a little klutzy. I managed to slog through all 3? seasons, but it wasn't nearly as impressive as the others. I'm not sure what wasn't working - maybe the prequel attempt needed more fleshing out before they launched it or something. But it felt sort of like they were running out of ideas by the start of s2.

      I haven't been through all of Voyager, but I've seen all of the other 3 series. TOS is just TOS - you either like it, hate it, or appreciate it. TNG got off to a slow start, but had a really good run through the middle. DS9 was pretty good through the first several seasons, then they got all up in the Dominion War and I lost interest.