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.
GWEN: "That's a poodle!"
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...