Hawaii 5-O and “grading shows”

The anatomy of a grading show (defined as a show to have on in the background while grading) is a funny thing. For me they fall into two broad categories. The first are old and familiar shows. The writing, the stories, and the rhythms are familiar. They take no brainpower to watch while marking bluebook exams or multiple choice tests. The second also requires minimal brainpower, but because they are a sitcom or procedural for which the rhythms are familiar, even if the specifics are not. If the show proves to be too captivating then its purpose falters because grading slows down. Usually, this means that the show has to be something I want to see, but far, far on the crummy end of the spectrum.

This current batch of grading has been me watching the reboot of Hawaii 5-O. I’m most of the way through the first season and have a few thoughts on this curious show.

  1. Hawaii 5-O is a show about a special law enforcement task force in Hawaii, led by a former Navy Seal and consisting of outsiders and outcasts. Among other things, their leader, Steve, has returned home to help uncover the cause of his father’s death.
  2. The writing on this show are pretty bad. It is aiming for fast-paced, cryptic, and yet direct. The result is that everyone seems to have inexplicable skills and knowledge, not to mention an extreme unevenness to the plot. Rob Morrow, one of the stars of Numbers, gave an interview a few months ago where he talked about the tendency of that show to be overwritten. It was insufficient for details or information to be conveyed by visual imagery or physical acting alone, but had to be said three times. Morrow mentioned frustration with this and how he used to try to create a script that was more spare and efficient and therefore elegant. Hawaii 5-O has this same problem in spades, with most of the excess dialogue also being bad dialogue.
  3. The superficial premise of the show is pretty people in paradise meets law enforcement, not unlike, for instance, Burn Notice. However, for this core concept, there is a lot of paradise and, aside from the stars, very little in the way of pretty people. The show is far more interested in shoot-outs and set-piece action scenes than in scenery.
  4. Throughout this episode, I’m trying to figure out what the core of the show is. Burn Notice has the tension between patriotism and his being blacklisted (with a dash of family dysfunction). Numbers has the good-hearted rebuilding of sibling relationships and the bringing of family together. NCIS has its goofy office hijinks. This show has aspects of all of these tensions and is desperately trying to recreate these formulas that worked (at least to some degree) in past shows, without actually pulling it off because it does some of all of those. There is a family vendetta, a blacklisted cop, another who is having a custody spat with his ex-wife with whom he would like to get back together. Then there is the extra seasoning of everyone being trigger-happy, which seems to be trying to cover for the failures elsewhere.

    This violence also manifests itself in that the main characters are all-too willing to blatantly disregard most laws, including to torture suspects. The characters sometimes allude to this in the sense that the leader of the team is not himself a cop. There is too much else going on, including that these law enforcement officers are always in a rush to get to their next act of sanctioned vigilantism, but they seem to want the core of the show to be tension of having a Seal in a cop’s job. Of course, asking those questions requires better writing and a larger cast, so Hawaii 5-O is happy to use everything as a throwaway, moving along quickly enough that maybe nobody will notice.

  5. What follows from the last point is that there is a visual representation of a militarized law enforcement that takes the stance that almost everyone else is a victim waiting to happen. Frequently, this results in stern talking-tos. At most there are token references to people outside of the main cast of the show, passing mentions of that they should not be discharging weapons in public spaces, and remorse when the “good guys” cannot save someone.

White Collar

Not long ago I finished watching the first season of the USA show White Collar. The premise is that a con-artist and art thief who spent years in jail is let out to house arrest under the supervision of the agent who caught him provided that he consult with the FBI on white collar crimes (art forgeries, thefts, scams, etc). Neil Caffrey (Matt Bomer) is a charming, smart, erudite character at ease discussing intellectual topics in high society and wearing nice clothes, while Peter Burke (Tim Dekay) is just an average-Joe agent who would prefer to watch a basketball game. Despite their differences, some of which provide an underlying tension that is one of the recurring plot devices, they develop a rapport and respect each other. Elizabeth Burke (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen) mediates their differences and helps bridge the (expected) underlying distrust that comes with a criminal working with the man who caught him.

The acting in White Collar is engaging and solid, if not spectacular. The premise itself provides most of the drama and the writing (and thereby execution of the premise) sometimes is deft and subtle, allowing Bomer’s charisma to shine and playing on Dekay’s ability as a straight-man; at other times the writing is ham-handed and the episodes revolve on nothing more than that the intellectually inclined Caffrey doesn’t like sports, while the everyman Burke doesn’t care about art. Likewise, there are points at the story when the writers slip into this mode that the plot becomes somewhat predictable. On the other hand, when the writers at their best, the story is witty, engaging, and there is enough suspense that the twists are not immediately obvious–or, perhaps at its best, the characters are able to engage the audience in such a way that it doesn’t matter what the twists are.

I have a lot of problems with television as a medium for storytelling, and White Collar commits many typical sins and suffers from all of the limitations, but often overcomes them by providing strong characters and a strong premise.

Despite enjoying the series, I have hesitated to watch the second season. I probably will get around to it at some point, but the reason I hesitate is that I am not optimistic about the future of the show. Some of the underlying tension will remain, but the major plot issue that kept Caffrey going was resolved (at least in its immediate incarnation) at the end of the first season and as has happened with other shows so reliant on a character and a premise, once that initial motivation for the character goes away (or gets dragged out), the show struggles to adjust, becoming repetitive. Shows like this one (also such as Burn Notice) that rely on just a few characters expire more quickly than ensemble cast shows (e.g. How I Met Your Mother). In the former type, I have become tired of shows as early as the second or third season, while ensemble casts can usually make it for five or six.

Above I mentioned the limitations of the television medium, and I suspect that this is the primary reason that these shows become stale. Television, like movies, are limited by what a person can be filmed doing and saying, with thoughts limited to voice-overs. Moreover, despite the length of an entire season, each story has to be short (usually either 20 or 40 minutes). This means that in comparison to a book, the stories presented in a show have to be the backbone of the story, then filled out by the body language and interaction of the actors. With these limitations, there is only so much that the writers can do and still remain within the premise and narrative of the show. In contrast, a book does not require the budget (and cast), or have to stick to an extreme serialization for the narrative and can thus range over a far wider area. Serial books can run into some of the same problems as a TV show, but usually does so after more time.

This is not to condemn White Collar for these inherent weaknesses. It should be criticized for the ham-handed treatment of some issues–as much as it could be praised for promoting a well-dressed intellectual as a main character–but not for the limitations of the medium. More to the point, I found watching the show an interesting study in the medium of character driven television since it possessed remarkably evident strengths and weaknesses.

It does leave me wondering, however, if the medium of television (and often movies) is not somewhat complicit in producing a culture milieu that de-emphasizes reading, struggles with attention, and seems to be increasingly less capable of producing complex thoughts and extended narrative or argument–even as some of these shows claim (either explicitly or implicitly) to glorify scientists, authors, and intellectuals. I question if the shows actually support the place of such people in society or if they merely provide a substitute for substance. It is also possible, though, that these shows are not so much causes of this culture as products of it. In either situation, I have read some discussion of the mechanization of American schools such that learning is a passive action done to students. TV, more so than books, seems to function the same way. Shows beamed into our living rooms and bedrooms along with commercials and with the possibly exception of shows that ask viewers to vote on candidates (which amounts to little more than a national popularity contest that I have little interest in), ask nothing of the viewer. Books require an active investment.