Friday, December 11, 2009


The show winks at itself so often that parody seems superfluous. But still.

UPDATE: An old school TV writer-producer of some fame, with hit sitcoms dating back to the early '80s, came last year to the Great Metropolitan University that pays my rent, to speak to a screenwriting class. He offered cool practical wisdom about writers' rooms and the manipulation of idiot executives. Turned out 30 Rock was a pet peeve of his. He said he was deeply offended that a show could become so acclaimed while violating every rule of continuity and common sense, the standards he'd felt honor-bound to adhere to throughout his career. Bottom line for him: "None of the things that happen on that show have any consequences."

He was right, of course. A typical episode of 30 Rock is an anything-goes collection of sketch comedy gags, lightly stitched together by a plot that is presented almost sarcastically. Because Tina Fey and associates are much too cool to take those old fashioned conventions seriously. 30 Rock flagrantly takes advantage of the "flexible continuity" we've grown accustomed to on The Simpsons. Homer is an astronaut this week and Mo is a cross-dresser, but by next week we'll have forgotten these things ever happened. By failing to understand this, our distinguished show-runner revealed himself to be an old fuddy-duddy, a stickler, a sitcom traditionalist, a pre-post-modernist. In short, a square.

I don't think the creators and producers of Torchwood have knowingly adopted "flexible continuity" as their code, but they might as well have. At times the tone of the show suggests an undergraduate theatrical spoof of a sci-fi TV show being presented with a straight face. Imagine the cast and crew huddling backstage, convulsed with giggles, waiting for the audience (or the BBC) to catch on.

All the standard, literal-mind complaints about Torchwood are well-founded. There are plot holes you could drive a Tardis through, personalities and motivations that seem to shift opportunistically from week to week, pseudo-scientific shop talk that is transparent gobbledygook. But in the end, none of this matters. In fact, what I enjoy most about the show is its casualness, its relaxed attitude toward continuity, its willingness to embrace the odd, often lewd non sequitur. Torchwood is great fun to hang out with.

The most intrusive of the smutty jokes harp on the characterization of head gatekeeper Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) as a emissary from mankind's supposedly omni-sexual distant future. During one of Jack's pre-spin-off appearances on Doctor Who, he was shown coming on first to a woman, then to a man and then to a blue-skinned and tentacled alien. (The Doctor seemed only mildly annoyed.) My favorite of these gags so far, though, was not on Jack, but his on "time agent" nemesis, John Hart, played by Buffy and Angel icon James "Spike" Marsters.

HART: "Ooh, she's nice."

GWEN: "That's a poodle!"
"That's a poodle" is a line that should be on tee-shirts.

The show has such a wide open premise (puzzling creatures and artifacts constantly spilling into present day Cardiff through a space-time rift) that there aren't all that many hard and fast details to keep track of. Half the stuff that pops through remains mysterious even to our heroes, the gatekeepers of the rift. ("How does this thing work?" "I have no idea. It just does.") Either they are implying, or I am inferring, that while they could easily have concocted a long-winded explanation for the workings of, for example, the steam-punky piece of mechanics called the "rift manipulator," they realized at the end of the day that as we've all grown weary of this sort of balderdash, they'd be better off taking it as read. We can think of much more enjoyable ways to spend the time. Wink, wink.

I can understand as a critic being offended by the cavalier attitude of a show like Torchwood. We may not expend as much energy as showrunners do on mastering the immemorial rules, but still, it can make the whole enterprise seem pointless when a show that brushes the rules aside with a sneer doesn't just get away with it, but wins awards and becomes a cult.

So. Faced with the grim truth that art and entertainment are, like life, often unfair, what are serious people to do? Best available advice is relax and enjoy.

Muffy St Bernard, excellent on Torchwood Season 2.

And for all John Barrowman completists...

Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and Constable Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), reflected in the eye-ball of an alien.


Christian Lindke said...

This show is the best example of why we should not allow British to make television.

Generic said...

Just a bunch of wacky kids putting on a show. What's not to like?

Anonymous said...

Hey! This is soooo funnnny! I love it - it's sarcastic and intelligent.

Tulkinghorn said...

What could it be about this series that makes Lindke so uncomfortable?

Muffy St. Bernard said...

What bugged me about Torchwood seasons one and two was the awkward shoehorning of deep emotion into otherwise silly plots; I felt they should try to be campy (more pterodactyl!) or grittier (more death!), but not both. And please don't give John Barrowman any more blubbering scenes.

For every episode I loved ("Something Borrowed") there were two that I thought where inexcusably terrible ("Meat" - "What have they done to you, friend? I'm sorry").

Fortunately, I think that Season Three hit the balance perfectly.

BTW, check out Russell T. Davies' book "The Writer's Tale," if you want to know every meticulous thought that went into his Doctor Who scripts, in a good way. He perfectly describes the process (and torture) he went through keeping his end of Doctor Who going. It should be a scriptwriter's bible.

Generic said...

I have friends at work who love Torchwood and despised Children of Earth. Took it as a betrayal. I'm not there yet. Have to watch DW season 4 and a couple of specials first.

I don't what to say about Barrowman. He's fine as the Han Solo-ish con man of his Doctor Who appearances. Hugely likable, obviously. Yet on Torchwood there's a nagging sense that he's been promoted beyond his level of competence. (What was that, The Peter Principle? Did you have that in Canada?) Not entirely Barrowman's fault. Why isn't Davies doing a better job of tailoring the role to his star's abilities? Isn't that supposed to be part of his job as a showrunner?

I have the Davies book on re-order from Amazon. It sounds great.

Generic said...

Hadn't yet read your own blog post when I added that comment. Great minds.

Tulkinghorn said...

The thing to keep in mind about Barrowman is that until Davies entered his life, he was almost exclusively a song and dance man in the old fashioned sense. Which makes him a very strange choice as the hero of a science fiction series. Check out his credits:

Barrowman's professional acting career began in 1989 in London's West End stage production of Cole Porter's Anything Goes; Barrowman played the role of Billy Crocker. He later reprised the role in Trevor Nunn's 2003 West End revival.[6] Barrowman appeared in West End productions of Miss Saigon, Beauty and the Beast, Matador, Hair, Grease!, Sunset Boulevard, Chicago and The Phantom of the Opera. He was also part of the musical Godspell in 1994, and is a soloist in two songs, "We Beseech Thee" and "On The Willows".

He was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical in 1998 for originating the role of Cal Chandler in The Fix,[7] a performance he repeated in Cameron Mackintosh's 1998 gala concert Hey, Mr Producer!. He has played the role of Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard in the West End and, briefly, on Broadway. His only other Broadway credit is the Stephen Sondheim revue Putting It Together (1999–2000). In 2002, he appeared in the central role of Bobby in Sondheim's Company in the Kennedy Center's Stephen Sondheim Celebration.

He has also appeared in the West End in non-musical dramas, such as Rope and the 2005 production of A Few Good Men, in which Barrowman starred as Jack Ross opposite Rob Lowe. He has starred in the pantomimes Cinderella at the New Wimbledon Theatre (Christmas 2005–6) and Jack and the Beanstalk at Cardiff's New Theatre (Christmas 2006–7). He played the title role in Aladdin at the Birmingham Hippodrome over Christmas 2007–8.[8]

Barrowman appeared as a guest act for the Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium in 2008.[9] He played the lead in the Robin Hood pantomime at the Birmingham Hippodrome[10] for the 2008-2009 season, and is set to reprise this role in Cardiff for the 2009-2010 season.[citation needed]

Barrowman presented Andrew Lloyd Webber's 60th birthday party in London's Hyde Park on September 14, 2008. Guests included Idina Menzel, Denise Van Outen, Elaine Paige, Lee Mead and the stars of I'd Do Anything.

On September 14, 2009 John Barrowman took over from Roger Allam as Zaza/Albin in the West End revival of La Cage aux Folle, at the Playhouse Theatre.

Generic said...

That he was a strange choice for the role doesn't necessarily mean he was the right choice, though it's a good start.

He was at some point supposedly "in talks" to take a role on Desperate Housewives.

Christian Lindke said...

Muffy St. Bernard actually captured the problems I have with the show. All the romantic subplots seemed forced and at the wrong moments. Not to mention certain, "action" sequences entirely lacking in tension.

I also agree about Barrowman not being used correctly. Harkness is a "Northwest Smith" figure, and a Biggles figure, and Barrowman doesn't quite pull the darkness of the soul off very well.

Reading Tulk's post regarding Barrowman's credits explains a lot.

The show has a good premise, but it needs to decide what direction it wants to take. Is it simply fun, or is it more serious. Doing either is hard enough, doing both is exponentially more challenging.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

I've never SEEN The Peter Principle, but I do think Barrowman might be a good example of it. Though he seems like an amazing guy to know personally.

Davies was hardly involved in Torchwood 1 & 2 outside of a few episodes. He certainly boosts it on all the featurettes, though, so I think it suffered something that the new Doctor Who suffers from as well: everybody loving what they do so much that they're unable to (or too afraid to) say when something's going wrong. "Daleks in Manhattan? That's the BEST idea, we LOVE that idea, it'll be great REGARDLESS of this crappy script and the pig!"

Davies basically took over Torchwood in season three. 1/4 of the time his ideas are awful (Slitheen), but the rest of the time they're beyond brilliant. When you get his book, you'll read about all his worries regarding every idea he's put into the show, and also his fear of being surrounded by yes-men, which he certainly was ("I'm Julie Gardner the executive producer and I'm sitting next to Russell, YAAAAY! Russell is BRILLIANT! Everybody loves Russell's cats! Russell was worried about this scene, but no, it's BRILLIANT!")

PS: Please, please, please check out RTD's six-part miniseries "Bob and Rose." Flawless!

Tulkinghorn said...

Notwithstanding, 'Children of Earth' has more than a little grandeur- and I think Barrowman nails the anguish (finally).

The hardest thing in this context is to find peril that is both large -- Batman catching burglars at some warehouse does not sustain a movie -- and not abstract -- The end of the world? Again. COE does that wonderfully, even if the plot doesn't quite make sense.

David has always claimed that the success of Tolstoy consists of his seamless shift in focus between the vast and the particular. That's what Davies pulls off here.

Generic said...

Don't recall saying that about Tolstoy. Not bad, though.

Of the series 2 episodes watched to date, "Reset" seemed to be the tightest and best. Whereas "Out of the Rain," though atmospheric, makes hash of the "rift" premise by apparently being a purely supernatural ghost story, a line that even "The X-Files" never crossed. (Once you declare a given locale to be a "center of rift activity," it seems, anything is possible.)

I've added "Bob & Rose" to my Netflix queue. The Davies book's on order. With that and "The Unfolding Text," we'll be ready to create the new academic discipline of "Who Studies."