Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for January 31st, 2012

Touch, Luck, and the challenges of smart TV

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On Sunday, I did something that I rarely ever do: I watched the pilots of two new TV shows. Part of this was thanks to the realization that with a new series, I can watch just one episode and get a blog post out of it. (By contrast, I still have the entire fourth season to finish before I feel qualified to write anything about Breaking Bad.) I was also intrigued by these two particular shows, but for very different reasons. One is Touch, from Heroes creator Tim Kring, a writer best known for blowing up his own fanbase while running his previous show into the ground. The other is Luck, from David Milch and Michael Mann, two erratic geniuses whose best impulses are hard to distinguish from their worst, but whose involvement in any project is inherently exciting. And while I predictably liked one show far more than the other, both have interesting things to say about the pitfalls of trying to create good, reasonably intelligent television for a large popular audience.

Believe it or not, I was looking forward to Touch, and not just for the chance to hear Kiefer Sutherland say “Dammit!” again. While most of the reviews were negative or skeptical, they grudgingly granted that the show displayed a certain structural ingenuity, or, to quote Ryan McGee of the AV Club: “This is extremely well-made schlock.” Unfortunately, Touch turns out to be the kind of show that wants us to be intrigued by the Fibonacci sequence without ever explaining why. It supplies one of those narratives, familiar from movies like Babel, that present elaborate webs of coincidence as a reflection of how the world really works. The trouble with both Touch and Babel is that by the end, we aren’t looking at any version of reality, but at a system of contrivance developed by the screenplay. The show revolves around an autistic boy who can allegedly see the uncanny patterns underlying all of reality, but ultimately, he’s just privy to Kring’s script notes. The result is a slickly made show that is content to seem smart on the most superficial level possible.

To its credit, Luck takes the opposite approach: this is a genuinely intelligent show that doesn’t seem to care much about holding the audience’s hand. This doesn’t mean that it’s impenetrable. Some of the early buzz about the show’s alleged incomprehensibility made it sound like Mann and Milch were adapting Finnegans Wake, but this is simply a show that rewards close attention, and perhaps multiple viewings. (I ended up watching the first twenty minutes twice, and I’m glad I did.) Like many previous outings from Mann and Milch, it’s steeped in the arcana of a complex, mostly masculine world, in this case that of horse racing, and one of the show’s pleasures is its confidence that the viewer will pick up most of this material on the fly. It’s true that much of it seems obscure at first, but it isn’t because, as with Touch, that there’s no greater depth to be found: there’s just a lot going on here, and if we occasionally need to consult a cheat sheet, it’s a small price to pay.

As it happens, the two pilots have a plot point in common—a winning lottery ticket, or its equivalent—and it’s instructive to consider the radically different approaches they take. Touch has a lottery ticket that’s basically a callback to Lost: a string of mystical numbers that win on a particular day simply because the script requires it. Luck, by contrast, takes us through the details of a $2.6 million pick six ticket to the point where we can understand the strategy behind each choice, until the outcome, while in some ways equally contrived, feels inevitable. That’s the difference between these two shows: drill down at any point with Luck, and you uncover a whole world of texture, information, and experience, while any attempt to dig deeper with Touch just gives you Tim Kring and his laptop. And the funny thing is that both shows essentially succeed at what they’re trying to do—which should remind us that in television, as in life, you only win as much as you’re willing to risk.

Written by nevalalee

January 31, 2012 at 10:15 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

January 31, 2012 at 8:00 am

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