by Josie Kafka
This is my theory: there are two ways to do great genre shows. The first I’ll call the Mystery Method (with an ironic nod to the maestro of misogynistic dating techniques): the viewers and the characters are in it together, wondering what’s going on. Think of Charlie’s question—one we’re still trying to answer—at the end of the Lost pilot: “Guys, where are we?” The character’s expression of concern excites interest in the viewer, and the discovery of the Mystery is the backbone of the show’s plot.
The second way I’ll call the Rules of the Game Method: the universe of the show has particular guidelines that are explained by one or more of the characters and then taken as a given for the rest of the show. Buffy is like this, as is Angel: the great Angel quote that summarized this method is Cordelia’s assertion to the Evil Corporate Vampire in the Angel pilot: “Hey, you’re a vampire!” No mystery there; the question isn’t whether or not vampires could or do exist—the rules of the game say they do, and that’s that.
It’s entirely possible for a show to combine these methods. The X-Files and Fringe both do: Mulder, in the X-Files, and Abbadon and Bishop, in Fringe, explain the Rules of the Game, and the viewer accepts that the universe of this show will include the supernatural, the extraterrestrial, and fringe science elements. But the point of the show is to explore the Mystery of the Rules, if you will: how and why do these rules exist? What are their parameters? Can they be bent or broken?
And then there’s the third way, the awful way: the Stupid Genre Show Attempt at a Hook (SGSAH, for short): there’s something mysterious going on, and a few of the characters know what’s up, but the viewer doesn’t, and the characters who don’t know what’s going on don’t seem to be asking the right questions. The “hook” of the show is for us to figure out what some character already knows: the hook is maintained by cutting away from vital visual clues, elliptical conversations, and other pathetic attempts to increase suspense through avoidance. (For the record, I don’t think Lost fell into this trap, or at least not too often: Ben may know what’s going on, but he wasn’t our emotional connection when he was busy lying all the time: we shared the mystery with the Losties.) Do any of you remember the short-lived show The Nine, about bank-robbery hostages trying to put their lives back together? The tagline was “What happened in there?” The point of the show was not revealing what had already happened, what the characters already knew: banal puzzle-making in the form of obscuring basic facts. It was short-lived for a reason.
[Minor, minor spoilers for the two-part pilot that aired on Sunday will follow. I don’t think I ruin anything, but read at your own peril.]
Defying Gravity uses the SGSAH method, and the results are as pathetic as you’d expect. I don’t want to spoil too much, but there’s a thingamabob that seems to be doing stuff—and that’s all we know, even though the thingamabob’s true nature is explained to a character off-screen. That character then bitches and moans about the burden this knowledge places on him, but he does so evasively, as though he knew we were listening in and we had to be kept in the dark. We’re TV viewers, for goodness’ sake! Not the KGB!
I know this all sounds more than a little caustic and cruel, but to be entirely honest, I feel a little insulted by the SGSAH method. We genre fans are better than this. Give us Mystery. Give us Rules. But don’t play with disinformation in an attempt to lure us back in to the same channel, same time. The phrase “jump the shark” is hideously overused these days, and while I’m not clear on its original meaning, I’m pretty sure it refers to the overly sensationalistic attempt at creating suspense: will the Fonz survive his Evil Knevil jump over the shark tank? The answer is, of course he will—but we tune in anyway to watch the peril. The SGSAH method feels like an automatic jump the shark moment to me: What’s going on?! How will I find out without any real clues?! I’ll have to watch again next week for tiny tantalizing bits of information that don’t reveal anything!
Defying Gravity isn’t all silly plots and mysterious thingamabobs, though. It’s also, as every other reviewer has noticed, Grey’s Anatomy in Space (the creator of Defying Gravity worked on Grey’s). Ron Livingston is Meredith Grey: he does the voice-over and has an ailing parent, just like Mere. He’s also McDreamy, because he slept with Laura Harris, who plays Zoe Barnes, and the ramification of their one-night stand seems like it’s going to be a leit-motif. The other characters more or less line up with the Grey’s characters: people are sleeping together, disrespecting each other, and generally acting like impolite children on a six-year space voyage.
A lot of this personal stuff is revealed through flashbacks, which sound like a Lost rip-off but is actually useful. The characters have been in training for their trip for five years, and the time they spent getting to know each other is relevant to their current relationships. However, many of the details of these relationships are also subject to the SGSAH method: who Zoe slept with is a question we’re supposed to be in the dark about, even though the rules of the economy of characters automatically tell us it was Ron Livingston. It takes them an entire episode to tease out this non-mystery.
The show is set about forty years in the future, but we get very few glimpses of any particular differences between then and now. The Space Program is international, but no one has a flying car (that we’ve seen yet) and people still use headsets and computers with keyboards to operate Mission Control. Bars are still seedy and have too much neon. Abortion has been outlawed, but we get the impression that the Supreme Court continues to waffle on the subject. The space program is still dominated by white people.
Will I watch it again? Maybe. I’m going to give it one more episode to redeem itself. And what else is there to watch on a Sunday night in the summer? Will it survive? I doubt it. The mission to Venus is supposed to take 43 days, and I have a feeling that the one-year plan was to make the entire 13 episode run last for precisely those 43 days, with a Venus cliffhanger at the season finale. Someone will probably die, most likely the German-esque slut, around episode 7. The ship’s doctor’s drinking problem will rear its ugly head around then, too. The chubby guy will hook up with the pretty girl from The Shield. Ron Livingston and Zoe Barnes will date briefly, but some artificial plot device will keep them apart until they find themselves locked in a space pod or something.
One out of four Thingamabobs That Do Stuff.