Monday, March 30, 2009
Battlestar Galactica vs The Sopranos
Mostly a discussion of plot arcs, spoilers abound.
Finally finished up BSG and was a little bit surprised to see them exhibiting the same plot arc pattern as The Sopranos for their ending. They picked up the story from the first season, killed off all the loose threads that were unrelated, and punched in the original ending they would've made if the show hadn't dragged out. The mixed response that the ending has been generating can mostly be attributed to the fact that the series had seemingly moved away from its original themes of technophobia. This is pretty much the exact same thing The Sopranos did.
The average TV show typically starts off very coherent and with a definitive narrative going on. They get to the end of the season fully prepared for the entire show to end or continue, find out if they're getting their contract renewed, then they start writing again. The consequence of this pattern is that drama necessitates consequences and that means killing off main characters. You get your contract renewed and suddenly you've got to accept that a lot of the people who helped drive your plot have been killed off.
The seams of this work can be seen in The Sopranos at about Season 3 after Paulie is killed. The uncertainty and drama he created was now gone and they had to fill the void. So the show introduced new characters like the hitman from Italy or the Catholic Priest. The basic plot arc of the show, that Tony is a sociopath who will kill anyone for the sake of the business who also has mother issues, is constantly played out with these people. The final season is just an exercise in repeating these themes, instead of Paulie it's Christopher etc. The point being that when you continually drag out a show's length well beyond what the original plot arc can sustain, writers typically repeat themselves by introducing new characters and playing out the drama all over again.
BSG, by the nature of its own story, had to be careful with adding characters out of the blue. It doesn't really make sense for a total stranger to just suddenly appear for these people after all. The show's greatest moments in Season 2 (the best overall in my opinion) and parts of 3 come from their incorporation of secondary characters into the story. Galen's wife, the one with awful bangs, goes from being that random peppy engineering girl to having a full blown story. The president's assistant, who was technically a replacement for the original actor, gets the same treatment. The show was impressive because instead of just recycling narrative and adding characters it actually had to progress, it had to evolve and move into new themes.
Which is ultimately what shoots the ending in the foot. The themes of technophobia, not relying on technology, and mistrusting the machines were all but abandoned by the show by Season 3. The Cylon society was no longer alien to us, we understood most everything about it by Season 3. The machines themselves had proven that like people, some are good and some are bad. The hybrid plot arc had blissfully been dropped and political themes were once again addressed in the 2/3 of Season 4.
And yet the last few episodes are a long parade of ideas and staples from the first season. That guy from Quantum Leap explains that he will hate humanity forever no matter what, demonized and unsympathetic in a way the show has not presented a Cylon in ages. Boomer proceeds to do every manner of awful thing before her tiny moment of redemption. Baltar and Caprica are once again seeing versions of themselves. Hell, Tigh is back with his wife.
The Cylon baby plot arc is killed off. Tigh and Caprica's relationship is killed off. Lucy Lawless is nowhere to be found. Kara and Lee are back to their sexual tension now that Sam is taking a permanent bubble bath. The President's cancer is back. They even had Dee kill herself to tidy those elements. The show is so intent to wrap up loose ends and get back on message that it doesn't seem to realize that the message changed a while ago.
I don't think the ending was atrocious or stupid and I still heartily recommend the show to anyone whose curious. But after years of following the show's exploits I think one of the things people enjoyed was that it maintained its narrative integrity in ways that something like The Sopranos didn't manage. Even the third season, which used flashbacks to explain character relationships a little too often, at least used the same characters to repeat their motifs. It was just a shame to see them reign all that back in for the sake of a video montage of Japanese Dancing robots. "There's too much confusion / I can't get no relief" may have been taken a little too literally in the final season of BSG.
Still got nothing on The Wire or Cowboy Bebop though.