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January 16 2015

Are sci-fi and fantasy shows being too safe? Agents of SHIELD is mentioned in this piece about the current state of genre television and the line between escapism and tackling big questions. Mild spoilers for other shows.

Given the popularity of genre shows as well as other Whedon works such as Firefly and Buffy, it's an interesting piece.

'Defiance' certainly doesn't play it 'safe'... speaking of shows with Whedonesque alumni. :D
I feel like the criticism of SHIELD was basically, "They didn't tell exactly the story that I would have told."
Seems like there are more people like me that really miss a solid space opera like BSG/B5/DS9 with the vision to be both entertaining and ask some questions about the future.

Currently POI rocks my socks with every episode, just amazing writing.
The article totally neglects to mention Orphan Black, which is a sci-fi show exploring some pretty big questions.
Yes, Orphan Black was a huge omission. It hits hard at its ethics issues, and plays hard across the whole LGBT spectrum. Complex characters, great writing, and fantastic acting.
Really, the kind of "big issues" writing that the author is talking about is rare. It's rare in genre shows, and it's rare everywhere. There aren't many shows asking the big questions right now, but there haven't been that many shows doing that during any given period in TV history.

MASH was a comedy that dealt with big issues. That doesn't mean it existed in a special time when all comedies were like that. It was one of a handful.

I would say that SHIELD is dealing with some big issues. Issues like identity, first through the sci-fi resurrection of Coulson, then through the more grounded struggles of Fitz, who I just realized has been on a similar recovery journey. Big issues like what we're willing to give up to achieve a higher goal. Those just don't happen to be the big issues that the author of this article thinks it should be tackling.
I keep hoping for a series like "West Wing" but whigh is set in an SF world.

Meanwhile I would recommend "In the Flesh" for the way it deals with social issues.
Really, it seems the hard question they want asked is about grey-grey morality ultimately. And that's not always the only hard question. Like mentioned above, it's interesting they miss Orphan Black entirely, as it does tackle huge questions of identity and where identity comes from. It's handling of clones can probably be called a spiritual successor of BSG's portrayal of its Cylons. It is also interesting they don't take a look at Defiance, a SyFy show helmed by one of the later writers of the reimagined BSG that they spent the whole article talking about. I wonder what this writer also things of Ascension, SyFy's attempt to bring itself back to its BSG quality days and also starring Tricia Helfer. I haven't seen anyone of it but I remmeber hearing some positive things.

I agree with Jason_M_Bryant in that they're making it seem Battlestar-quality was something at least half of genre shows had and that this writer is limiting the "hard question" to ethical complexity, and that isn't always the heavy thing shows are setting out to deal with. Agents of SHIELD is about self-sacrifice in the name of greater good and what people are willing to give up for it, and it seems that's its shaping up to be about different kinds of trauma and how it can shape people's lives. (I'm sure I can have a field day writing an analysis on that and the kind of support each character had and how that affected them.)

Unfortunately I'm behind on Defiance a whole season and a half so I can't speak much of it. Really, I'm centuries behind on all my genre television. I won't defend Game of Thrones because I'm disappointed in that as an adaption of the books or OUaT (Espenson's not only a Wheodn alum but she also wrote some BSG episodes) because I'm disappointed in that one's handling. But I will generally agree there isn't anything currently in genre that is the scale of Battlestar Galactica. It asked a whole lot of hard questions at once, all the time, even in its worst moments. That's something that's extremely difficult to achieve. But that doesn't mean some weighty thoughts aren't present in things right now from time to time.

I don't know. I expected a lot more from the article in the way it discussed what it defined what these hard questions were and why it specifically felt today's shows were lacking and what the context is that leads to this lack and a wider range of specific examples, most especially looking closely at what SyFy and BSG alums were doing. Okay, so maybe I spent too much time reading media criticism, but this writer's argument while probably true is just so weakly held up.
Jason_M_Bryant, I think you make a good point. Since genre is becoming more and more mainstream on TV, it's natural that not all of it will be dealing with the heavy, serious questions. Lots of genre TV these days is just an interesting concept used as a catalyst for an action show or a pretty standard thriller. But as long as the rare shows get made that are actually curious about their concept and themes, I'm fine with the others being popular too.

The article really needed to acknowledge Orphan Black. As far as I'm concerned, that's doing everything right with exploring the implications of its concept. And the questions it asks are relevant to the 'real' world. One of my biggest frustrations with some genre shows is when the only questions they ask are to do with the phlebotinum (stuff where the only answer you can get is something else the writers made up).
Point #1: this article really needed a better editor (sentence fragment, seriously?).

Point #2: if the premise of the argument is that Syfy's BSG is the standard to which other genre shows should aspire, then IMO any and all conclusions will be fallacious. Yes, the remake was far better than the first iteration (which was a shallow rip-off of the Star Wars phenomena), but clearing that very low bar does not confer greatness.

Point #3:
If you’re like me—if you grew up watching The X-Files and Star Trek reruns and even colorful dross like M.A.N.T.I.S. and Strange Luke and Deadly Games—then you can recognize that this is a boom time for genre television.

Some of us watched ST:TOS as broadcast, not just in reruns. Respect your elders.

Point #4: I can't tell whether this writer is lamenting elements of theme or plot -- or if he can tell the difference between the two. And the notion of character gets very short shrift.

All that said, kudos for recognizing the quality of Black Mirror.
And while we can (should?) all agree that BSG did an excellent job in the New Caprica arc of bringing home the horrors of an occupation/insurgency, I think it would be generous to say that the reaction to the final season was mixed at best. Stories have to be entertaining and make sense to be commercially viable, and commercial viability is really a substitute endpoint for connecting with individual consumers. In the final analysis, BSG ended up doing neither particularly well, and a common sentiment among my genre-loving peers at the conclusion was "what a letdown", a sentiment I can't repudiate myself.

Talking about big questions, in the absence of entertainment, simply becomes preaching.
I generally agree with the article, even though it skips any discussion of Orphan Black. While I really like Agents of SHIELD, it's not living up to what it could be as a vehicle for social commentary. The whole identity issue is, to me, a non-issue in the grand scope of things, unless it's handled as it is in OB (which also deals with other issues of ethics and corporate greed, and I assume will start dealing with war, violence, and military aggression soon).

Continuum is another series that is as sci-fi was originally created to be, a vehicle for social commentary. Star Trek, while it had its crappy episodes, was created to be such a vehicle, as was BSG. I think many people lament the disappearance of the morality plays as part of a space opera.

CATWS was also such a vehicle. AoS picked up on the momentum of the movie, and in trying to present the story leading to the earth-shattering Skye revelation, lost any message contained in the movie. There is no address of the rise of the police and surveillance state that had historical ties to the Nazis. On the other hand, some of that might happen in Agent Carter, along with the more overt theme of sexism and gender issues.

Also, there does seem to be more morality play stuff in Grimm, though not at the level of sophistication as with OB or Continuum. It's been more plot than theme, though there have been allusions to the royal houses being something like the 1%/bourgeoisie using their political and economic power to control of everyone else.

Some of us watched ST:TOS as broadcast, not just in reruns. Respect your elders.

LOL! Yep!

[ edited by Nebula1400 on 2015-01-17 21:53 ]
Point #1: this article really needed a better editor (sentence fragment, seriously?).

Online content seldom goes through any editing or proofreading process anymore. Slows things down too much. As long as it's fast and basically coherent, everything is considered good.

As for the article, it's main premise seems to be that all genre shows should be more like Battlestar Galactica. And since I didn't like Battlestar Galactica, that kind of compromises the whole thing for me.
Besides the aforementioned Person of Interest (the last couple of seasons, anyway) and Black Mirror there's also been seasons 4-5 of Supernatural, Torchwood: Children of Earth, Orphan Black and Hannibal in terms of moral complexity while dealing with major themes/ideas in a genre format.

I think genre TV (as well as film) has never been more ambitious and diverse than it is right now. We have big budget tentpole projects and smaller indie stuff. Fun, exciting pulp and gloriously pretentious masterworks. And everything in between. The sheer number of great projects, as well their diversity of approaches, is staggering. There's even a ton of great genre TV/films from countries that aren't America, Canada, The UK, Australia and New Zealand. I mean a ridiculous amount of great foreign language genre stuff. An embarrassment of riches, really. All of this exists BECAUSE of the post-Lord of the Rings/Lost mainstreaming of geeky fare, not in spite of it. We're really, really fortunate to be around for this golden era of geekdom. I think Darren Franich should just relax and enjoy it while it lasts.

[ edited by JesusSavedIn01 on 2015-01-17 22:19 ]
It seems like Captain America: Winter Soldier went more along the lines of what the article writer wanted ("maybe it's a bad idea to have an omnipresent all-powerful organization?"), and SHIELD watered it down a bit.
In The Flesh called. Said "what about our commentary on society using zombies as an analogy?" And then got cancelled. Boo.
Methinks some people are confused about the relationship between science fiction (that is, scientifically reasoned fiction) and fantasy:

Fantasy is the overall genre. All that something needs to do to qualify as fantasy is to be built around a nice big 'What if...' Science fiction is a subset of that genre where focus in the story isn't just on having questions, but on answering them and then having a back-and-forth on those answers for good measure (for better or worse...) Imo what this article overlooks is that the modern age of "genre" programming is primarily made up of general fantasy and not specifically science fiction (where the majority of the "big questions" type of stuff tends to get handled effectively.)
Defiance, Continuum and Orphan Black. So, SF shows coming out of Canada? (Yes, I know Defiance is an American production, but I'm counting it because it's made here in town.) :)
I'm not sure I find Orphan Black "not safe." I love the show, but for as much darkness as it has it really doesn't seem to question the ethics of its protagonists and the plot always absolves them. You have scenes like Alison's bondage moment but the plot then bails out and doesn't really force her to deal with being wrong. And Donnie doesn't seem to show any long term issues with it at all which is just odd.

Make no mistake, it is a dark show but it does not cause the audience the same kind of cognitive dissonance something like BSG did where it frequently pitted liked characters against each other (Adama vs. Ros/Tyrol vs. the Fleet/The resistance vs. Apollo-Baltar). I've never felt I was meant to question Sarah or Alison in the same way because like Agents it tries to keep up a facade of Us vs. Them while not really trying to excuse one side's viewpoint.

To me, that's always when you're in the land of safe writing. For safe writing though, it's extremely entertaining and twisted.
I think really a point of disagreement here is the question of what "not safe" is.

I tend to think of Orphan Black as not safe because of how head on it tackles issues of identity, the issue of ownership of women's bodies (quite literally in the series). I tend to disagree with the idea that not safe is always about questioning the ethics of one's protagonists. Sometimes, in my opinion, it's just examining difficult issues.
There's an article at HuffPo, regarding SyFy's 12 Monkeys and Helix, that includes the following snippet that I think is relevant here: "Even more so than other genres, science-fiction stories often revolve around moral conundrums and ethical dilemmas, but if the viewer doesn't care about the people wrestling with those difficult choices, it can be hard to stay invested in the tale."

I'd add to this that the stakes matter... when the hero faces a threat that falls closer to home (to our own experiences), there is greater resonance compared to fantasies that are farther "out there." (Maybe this is part of the safe/not-safe divide.) Buffy was emotionally deeper than other fantasy universes in large part because it wasn't really about the monsters; they were just the metaphor for the personal demons that humans face as part of growing up. The stakes were high because of that shared experience with the viewers. (And some were pointy.)
It's just a difference in perspective.

To me, I never quite consider that unsafe because to me that is the politics of the creator(s) being propped up with plot and characters. I don't really question anything in OB because I'm never shown a way in which the antagonists actions are not bad and the protagonists are not good, therefore there's no real discussion to be had outside of how it relates to the real world. If anything, it's just self-selecting the audience to those who enjoy the combination of that continual set-up and pay off.

It tends to tease those conflicts with Delphine, Vic, Paul, and Mrs S, but each of those conflicts a wrapped up so neatly you just can't sink your teeth into any of them.

I'm not trying to rip on a show I love. I'm just saying if I'm not being shown a reason to question why I'm cheering and to me that is safe viewing. OB I love because they've got their form figured out. But dark as it may be, so far it's extremely vested in not asking a question that splits the audience or losing a character its audience loves or not punishing the character the audience wants punished. It is very much disposable villains and quirky heroes. The fact that there's prostitution, drug dealing, and heavy violence doesn't really kick it out of that pattern.

[ edited by azzers on 2015-01-18 19:43 ]
I think there are lots of ways you can not be safe. I'd classify 'not safe' simply as challenging accepted ideas and views. You could create morally grey characters and still have them deal with issues in a way that doesn't surprise you. Even something as simple as using the female identity and perspective as the norm from which to explore things (as opposed to being the Other) can be challenging.

To respond to the discussion about Orphan Black, I thought that it did deal with Alison's snowballing mistakes, it's just that she deals with things with heavy doses of denial followed by more spectacularly self-destructive outbursts. I don't think anyone can really say that Alison's ethically sound, although the show is more interested in showing how people deal with difficult things in different ways. I agree, it's not set up in a way that makes it easy to sympathise with, for example, Rachel's side of things. I think a lot of that's to do with Sarah being the protagonist and she really does have an 'us vs them' mindset, although Cosima does consider both sides most of the time. I think there are such clear parallels to real-world issues (particularly for women) in what the characters face that you can't look at the questions with the same level of distance and objectivity as you can in a series dealing with more abstract questions like fate and technology and what-have-you.
I think there are lots of ways you can not be safe. I'd classify 'not safe' simply as challenging accepted ideas and views.

But is it challenging the ideals or views of its target audience or those of some group of safely distanced Others ("mainstream" or otherwise.) Because there is absolutely nothing unsafe about the latter.
In regards to Orphan Black, the show does have the protagonists do a fair share of shady stuff it's just the antagonistic people are worse. The way Alison and Donnie rekindle their romance is rather dark and morbid, but it's treated as a bonding experience for them at the expense of someone who treated the clones like objects. Helena is technically a serial killer but she was forced to be that by the people who took away her choices and broke her mind. Rachel is still a terrible person but she hasn't had much choice in her life to be anything else and you feel the tiniest bit bad for how she loses her adoptive father even though she was just doing what she was raised to with regards to her sisters. And that adoptive father created her and her sisters in a way that limited their reproductive rights. Mrs. S has done a lot to help Sarah, but she also betrayed Sarah's trust multiple times especially in the 2nd finale. Marion's occupation makes her seem antagonistic but she's offering to help Sarah right now. Now the show is poised to explore masculine identity issues and with the few bits of information we have on S3 their is already a contrast going on with Leda and Castor particularity with the recent reveal around Mark's choice to be with Gracie.

The only one trying to bring a traditional sense of justice to the whole thing is Angie which we know can't happen as the show would lose it's conspiracy angle, and Angie is a clueless nobody still unaware of the "C Word" so she was stagnant in the 2nd season.

SHIELD didn't really show the team doing anything underhanded in the beginning as they had to look better then HYDRA. With the team "gone dark" they are now doing more shady things but we know they are ultimately good. If/when Coulson gets SHIELD back on its feet it'll be interesting to see what he does differently. He can't be open and honest about everything but having too many secrets is what caused SHIELD to fall in the first place.

Some genre can deal with Big Questions as that is a cornerstone of it. But I see nothing wrong with some shows being mostly fluff (OUAT) and not everything has to be dark and gritty to be serious. Look at the fun and life mixed in with seriousness in the MC films. Genre is booming in TV and film right now, enjoy what you want.

[ edited by Dusk on 2015-01-18 23:43 ]
brinderwalt, I'd agree that to be unsafe the challenged ideas should be a matter of genuine debate outside of the fictional world, not merely mainstream modern-day viewpoints inserted into an artificially corrupt society. Good point. Although that's what many dystopias do, and part of the reason why they're interesting is because they show how people can be socialised to accept the loss of rights we think are obvious. The challenge there is that we take those beliefs in things like free speech and progress for granted.

What you say about the target audience is also interesting, because people who disagree with a TV show's politics are less likely to keep watching. I can't imagine there are many people who watch Orphan Black who don't belief in reproductive rights, for example. But you can say that about any book or article which probably mostly reaches people who already agree with it.

To get back on-topic about SHIELD, it would be nice if it did go deeper into the shadiness of the organisation. It would be interesting to see more of Coulson dealing with having way too many secrets to keep from his team. Now he won't be able to glibly allude to the darker stuff, since he might be asked to personally set it back up again (I'd like to see an episode like that). Since Skye was most skeptical about SHIELD at the start, it would be interesting to come back to her views, especially because one of the things she was shocked by was the list of gifted people who were under surveillance as safety risks.
I agree that Agents of SHIELD has been stepping a bit quietly. I was actually a bit disappointed by Winter Soldier myself, since the blame for the ominous omniscience landed squarely on Hydra, not on Fury/Coulson/the other "good people." (You could twist it into a sort of strange historical metaphor, with the US adopting ex-Nazis to fight bigger threats, as indeed happened in the Cold War, but I really don't think that's what the authors were going for.) And Agents of SHIELD has been even less interesting than that---on that front, at least.
What you say about the target audience is also interesting, because people who disagree with a TV show's politics are less likely to keep watching. I can't imagine there are many people who watch Orphan Black who don't belief in reproductive rights, for example. But you can say that about any book or article which probably mostly reaches people who already agree with it.

I wouldn't say any. truth be told, most things people make are technically some form of propaganda (and, despite what society might teach you, there is nothing wrong with recognizing that.) But there are those rare exceptions out there (one that comes to mind is Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner where the protagonist goes through sixteen episodes of hell in order to make a point about the tyranny of the collective over the individual only to come back in its final episode and partially undermine its own conclusion by demonstrating the worst of what can happen when everyone has an individual voice.)

To get back on-topic about SHIELD, it would be nice if it did go deeper into the shadiness of the organisation. It would be interesting to see more of Coulson dealing with having way too many secrets to keep from his team.

I wouldn't hold my breath on that front. One of the hallmarks of the Marvel brand is that it is all based around strong-characterization-at-the-expense-of-weak-ideology storytelling since Stan Lee had a bone to pick with all the strong-ideology-at-the-expense-of-weak-characterization storytelling that used to rule the day in comic book land (see Fatman on Batman Episode #34 around the 33 minute mark.) In the unified Marvel universe, ideas exist only insofar as they serve as plot devices to get characters from point A to point B.

It's the main reason why I personally am not, nor ever have been, much of a Marvel fan - and conversely why I tend to love things from DC (where ideology is notorious for running free reign) written by former Marvel writers (Bruce Timm, I'm looking at you) since you tend to end up with the best of both worlds: characterization and things that actually mean something.

ETA: And why I am waiting with baited breath for the day to come when joss gets the chance to play in the DC universe...

[ edited by brinderwalt on 2015-01-19 05:08 ]
Because Joss should still do Wonder Woman.
There's definitely a place for pure character storytelling I think, it's just I think there was a generational shift to those who were weaned on Iron Man Movies and missed the context of 80's/90's Batman/Spider-Man and think Marvel Studios is the end-all be-all of storytelling. Really, it's just a nostalgia center for them which is fine. Marvel could tread in TDK waters and get away with it because its fans will allow it.

That's why Joss could do WW, but honestly I'm deathly afraid that being a DC property that anything short of exceeding TDK (quality terms - not content wise) is going to get torn to shreds by the target demo. It appears to be a very specific generational perception issue. You generally don't fix those. You just wait around for their kids.

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