The Telephonoscope

TV. Probably also cats.
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Elementary is a better show than Sherlock, and the character you see in the picture above is the reason why. 

Sherlock is a lot of fun. Cumberbatch and Freeman are brilliant. The writing has a lot of snap, and the show does a great job of using visuals and graphics to give us a glimpse into what it’s like inside Sherlock’s head. But at the end of the day, John Watson is almost entirely (as many internet chatterers have said) “Sherlock’s bitch.” Their relationship is not really one of equals. Sherlock is not capable of seeing it as such…not yet, anyway. He manipulates John, has to be told that this is wrong, and then manipulates John into forgiving him for it. Come on! The show is just too much in the corner of its titular character. Not to the absurd extent that Dexter was, but still. 

Joan Watson would never let Johnny Lee Sherlock get away with shenanigans like that. She is a strong person who sets boundaries — is so good at setting boundaries, in fact, that she used them to pull Sherlock out of heroin addiction. She and Sherlock have earned each other’s respect. He treated her as a partner even before he officially took her on as a partner in detection. Better (and more believable) relationship between the two leads = better show. 

Can you imagine what would result if Moffat tried to write a female Watson? The mind reels, the stomach churns. 


Elementary and Sherlock have different strengths and weaknesses, so a one-to-one comparison doesn’t capture the full excellence of either. But, surprisingly, over time Elementary— which has the greater structural disadvantages (only 43 minutes at a go, at least 20 of which are devoted to pretty dull, case-of-the-week procedural solving)— has become the more emotionally resonant of the two. And it’s for precisely this reason— there are genuine consequences to Sherlock’s misbehavior, true character growth, and emotional math that makes genuine sense.

There are also delicious twists that are every bit as surprising as those Moffat creates— if not more surprising. They’re just doled out more sparingly. 

Elementary is a cumulative pleasure— if you see one or two episodes, it’s unlikely to distinguish itself, but if you watch in sequence, the show really rewards your attention. There’s a lot of procedural plot to hum through, but the emotional melody you catch if you hang around long enough is complex, lovely, and supremely satisfying.

And Joan’s clothing is beautiful, so. 

Have been thinking about this issue all day after reading Zack Handlen’s excellent AV Club piece - but I feel like there’s something interesting here about suggesting that Elementary has “greater structural disadvantages.” 

The question, of course, is “greater structural disadvantages” to do WHAT precisely, and if the answer to that is “build a strong detective series,” then I’d argue Elementary has a far superior structural framework. Holmes, as designed by Conan Doyle and as reinterpreted and reworked and reflected through the countless detective figures in the last century, is all about repetition and brevity. Part of what distinguishes him as a character is that detection is his job - it is the thing he does day in and day out, the stuff of the mundane, the familiar, the reliable, the rhythmic. It is what makes Holmes Holmes, and what makes our reaction to him so ideal for serial storytelling. To us, as an audience and as reflected through Watson’s perpetual admiration, Holmes’ character and life are unusual and remarkable and fascinating. But all of those thrilling feelings are always, always contained within our knowledge that this is Holmes’ job (and so of course he’ll figure out the mystery). We also inherently recognize that this is an episode of a procedural (or Holmes short story) - it’s gonna work out. This is all crucial to the development of Holmes as a character. His machine-like perfection, his coldness, his slow-burn development from wholly inhuman to pleasantly, knowably other - these things rely on Holmes turning up, yet again, to solve yet another case.

This is a model Elementary can take advantage of, and Sherlock can’t.

There’s an added fillip here, one that Handlen addresses a little in his piece. Sherlock's comparative brevity means that every single episode has an equally massive burden of eventfulness, while Elementary has the advantage of long seasons in which the relative narrative weight can be unequally distributed. In essence, Sherlock is stuck with a situation where it onlyexists in Nielsens sweeps weeks, where deaths and births and heart surgery in a broken elevator are the norms to drive enormous viewing numbers. Elementary gets to have those weeks (see, of course, its amazing Irene Adler bits from the end of S1), but it can also balance them with all the important, quieter storytelling moments that feel status quo but are in fact characterological bread and butter. Sherlock, weighed down by the now-immense hype machine and expectation game (a great problem to have, but still a problem), is now only ever set on “heart surgery in a broken elevator.” 

Of course it doesn’t have to be this way. Short BBC-style mystery series can do three-episode seasons without resorting to crazy over-the-top constant explosive action. (I’m thinking of Wallander, for instance.) But you can see why Sherlock is the way it is, and you can understand the road that has led them here. 

Long, American-network-style seasons can have their structural advantages, is all I’m saying.

It feels like every so often, someone writes a “TV is novelistic” piece. It’s been happening pretty regularly since what is probably the first major “TV is novelistic” piece, Charles McGrath’s 1995 “The Triumph of the Prime-Time Novel” in the NYTimes, and that idea seems to keep popping up - often with claims of originality - every once in a while.

There are, of course, lots and lots of reasons why this isn’t true. I ranted a little bit on my twitter account about the specific problems with the latest in this trend, Mary McNamara’s “Why AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad’ is the new novel,” which is both a typical representation of the frequent arguments and also especially un-insightful about the whole subject. She seems to contradict herself over the course of her short piece, for instance, by claiming both that Breaking Bad is “the new novel,” and that it is a “new narrative form.” She also notes that TV recapping is “rapidly eclipsing the book club as our primary form of communal literary analysis,” a statement that primarily leads me to wonder how many book clubs she’s been a part of.

What I find most interesting about the timing of McNamara’s piece is that it would appear now, as Breaking Bad is about to end. There are few moments over the course of a television series that elicit the kind of criticism that often ends in a “TV is novelistic” argument, but I’d suggest that really the only time this argument makes any sense at all is after a television series has concluded its run, or just as the finale approaches. That’s because in the midst of a television series, in between episodes four and five or really anywhere mid-stream, it’s hard to imagining mistaking television for anything else.

When a television series is done, or nearly done, we can begin to look back on its whole scope and see it as a completed, single, ossified object. All the drama of its contract negotiations and showrunner departures are now folded into the background, all the guest stars and questionable plot arcs and oddities of the one-off episode are now flattened into the single object of the text: it happened. It is what remains. We can lay it all before us, now, and treat it as though it was always that way. 

In this, and perhaps only in this, is television like the novel - or at least, the novel as it seems to live in the critical conception of people who say things like “TV is novelistic.” I would argue - and have, and will continue to argue - that even in this moment, television is entirely distinct from the novelistic form, that its quirks and oddities and innovations are unique unto itself. I have a pony in this race: I have a dissertation chapter on the television episode as a narrative form with no novelistic corollary, something I continue to believe is the root of television’s narrative innovations and is, indeed, a completely awesome television-specific structure. But I can see why, at this moment when a television show is soon-to-be or recently complete, it is tempting to ignore all that other stuff and view it as a single, unbroken, immovable whole. It is satisfying. It gives you a sense of mastery. It’s why we like looking down on cities from tall buildings. 

(This, by the way, is one of the primary distinctions between television and the serial novel, which is by design intended to be a single object, regardless of whether or not it was once split into pieces.)

The thesis does show up occasionally between seasons. Take, for instance, this piece in which a number of television shows are proposed as “novelistic.” The showrunners either refer to series which are nearly finished, or treat completed seasons as finished objects - leading to some very confused rhetoric. Terence Winter, about Boardwalk Empire, notes that “the series as a whole is a novel, and then you take year by year and each season as its own mini-novel.” (Mini-novel?) Then there is the oft-lauded “novelistic feel,” a phrase the article’s author seems to throw in even though David Shore’s comments about House, the context for the phrase, seem to entirely bely the whole novelistic proposition. These examples are clearly seeking to identify provisional endings from which to achieve a higher critical vantage point, or are so muddled in the use of “novelistic” as to render the term largely useless.

Because at really any other moment of the televisual proceedings, the argument makes no sense. No one, in the middle of Breaking Bad's bottle episode “Fly” would suggest that the show was novelistic, because the immediate reality of that episode - its bizarre and unmistakable existence as a TV episode par excellence - would make that argument seem silly. Nor does anyone watch a television pilot and declare the show “novelistic.”  There are too many balls in the air; the specific and unavoidable peculiarities and perks of television seriality make that thought patently absurd. 

And so it’s interesting to me, once again, to watch this thesis pop up as the finale of Breaking Bad gets closer. It’s a testament to how tricky and slippery and fascinating and frustrating television seriality is at every other moment of its existence - simultaneously finished and unformed, available for criticism even in its provisional state, capable of surprising or boring or suddenly disappearing. 

I love television so much. I’m so glad it’s not like novels. 

Only a few of what can safely be described as dozens of reasons to watch Law & Order: UK

The following plot actually happened on The Newsroom this week, and it wasn’t even the seriously problematic main “blonde girl gets traumatized in Africa” story, nor was it the “Will McAvoy is a jerk to another idealistic young woman” line, or even the gathering steam chemical weapons arc - nope, this was just a little side note all on its own. 

1) Female reporter, whose primary identity is that she went to Vassar, is treated horribly by her boss. (Boss: “Unless you wanna put on heels and fuck me for an hour, you need to stop being a little bitch.”) Good Guy Jim overhears, and then instead of expressing shock and outrage, decides to make her feel guilty for allowing herself to be treated that way! (Jim: “You left the Denver Post for that?”)  

2) Good Guy Jim manages to score an important interview, and then secretly gives it away to Vassar Alum, who gleefully assumes it has just fallen into her lap in spite of all evidence to the contrary. 

3) Inevitably, Vassar Alum discovers that Jim gave her the interview, and declares herself insulted by this condescension. Actual line of dialogue from Jim: “Everything about it felt right. But if it was insulting, I still don’t care.”  

4) Jim, who as we know has just been slumming it on the campaign trail and whose serious lapse in journalistic judgment is merely resulting in his return to his excellent, powerful and high-paying job, makes out with Vassar Alum, who apparently has viewed the previous exchanges as a form of foreplay.

Slow clap all round, guys. Just some excellent stuff here.

Sam Waterston: trapped inside The Newsroom

Sam Waterston: trapped inside The Newsroom



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Truly, it’s like someone said, “Hey, let’s grant one of Kathryn’s wishes today.”

Alas, I was too slow to register

Pip is my Ernie.

Since the dome is invisible can’t the town communicate with the outside world by just holding up notes? And the outside world could brief them the same way. Chester Mill doesn’t have to use a scratchy ham radio to get info. You’d think they were tracking Amelia Earhart.

There’s no mass panic? You’ve just been sealed in by something unknown for an unknown period of time. Just one rogue cop finds this disturbing? There’s no looting or runs on grocery stores? Even the diner stays open. People sit at the counter and sip their coffee and enjoy their pie just like it’s just another sleepy Thursday. Order that special of the day now because when they’re out of it they are OUT of it.