SURFACE REVISITEDOne of the truly great stops on my TV websurfing rounds (other than Tom the Dog) is TV Guide’s site which has great rumor/TV show secrets columns (Entertainment News and Ask Ausiello) and some good Q&A commentary from Matt Roush (I agree with his opinion less than with Ausiello’s, but he’s a good read… he’s kind of like the Ann Landers to Ausiello’s Dear Abby). I had been meaning to write something here about how Surface is becoming one of those critically maligned shows that people stand up for (in the messageboards and the Q&A areas of magazines and their websites), but I decided to write Roush a letter instead. They’ll never use it (I have always had a problem tailoring length of letters to entice editors for publication), so I figured I would slap it up here.
Congratulations! By referring to Surface as “critic-proof,” you’ve given the show more credit than most critics seem to be willing to. As a follower and slight fan of the show (pretty good but not great is my assessment), I’ve noted that the negative critical reaction was swift and certain, but that a groundswell of positive feeling in venues of public sentiment (i.e. the blogosphere, messageboards, and in letters to Q&A columns such as yours) has begun to build; however, I don’t think the show is critic-proof in the conventional sense (having elements of mass market appeal such as big stars, well worn themes, big special effects, etc. that make it impervious to traditional criticisms) but instead believe this is a matter of a genre adventure being dismissed in favor of other similar dramas liked better at pilot time by critics who are either are sticking by their guns or are too busy to revisit the comparison. For the record, I thought Invasion’s pilot was pretty good, but that the show (immediately afterwards) entered a 5 episode sag where nothing occurred except for dwelling on the same character reaction patterns over and over (it has recently pulled out of this slump a bit), and I thought Threshold had a good pilot with a great set of ideas and a good cast, but desperately needed a new show-runner to figure out how to use these elements better. For my money, Surface has been the most successful of these shows and one of only two new shows this season (the other being Ghost Whisperer, of which I am not the target audience) that seemed to be born fully realized with the pilot without requiring any retooling.
The appeal of Surface, for me, boils down its “novelic” feel. The pacing, which seems different than that of any current network TV show I can name (but is similar to that of some miniseries and HBO dramas) allows for slow movement of intra-episode plot elements (none of that frenetic jumping around to create action filled episode climaxes) and character moments, which nonetheless produce relatively quick advancements of the “big” plot (this show actually shows you stuff… it doesn’t wait till the season finale for a big reveal) and provides characters that actually change over the course of a few episodes. The scope is large with characters located across the US and the world, with care given to develop several distinct micro-settings. The writers have created character relationship pairs (I call them “diads,” although I don’t know if this is the preferred term) that have a life of their own and actually evolve over time (my favorite being the relationship between Miles and his sister, but the show has several really interesting ones). Any of the criticisms that I have heard about this show being boring could also directly apply to Deadwood (don’t hit me... I’m not really putting the shows in the same league, just illustrating a point).
The critical vs. populist (or, more accurately, paid vs. amateur critical) differences of opinion remind me of the very beginning of South Park (a situation which changed as the show is now a minor critical darling) and Family Guy (a situation which has not changed), with columns damning the shows being met with letters from progressively more ardent fans defending them. I don’t think the show is flawless (I too thought the traipse through the grocery store was a bit much), but isn’t this a show that deserves some respect for penetrating a critical pitch black cloud, and emerging with a following? (see, I did have a question)
-Todd Murry, Las Vegas, NV
The diad term (I don’t know where that came from) was one I used to use a lot when discussing why Star Trek TNG was a show that worked so well (the fact that Data had such specific well developed relationships with each other character was the major reason, I think, that he was so popular). Also, I can still remember the Moviepoopshoot reader response wars over whether Family Guy was a good show or not (no better way to stoke reader reaction than to bash a show they like every week), and the turnaround on Entertainment Weekly’s position on South Park when it became obvious their reader base loved it. I don’t think Surface is quite so galvanizing, but it is quietly becoming a show with an actual fan base.