Monday, February 21, 2011

A Dose of Reality

This weekend I watched the season four finale of the British show Primeval, and it got me thinking about an old television trope that this particular series has managed to more or less ignore completely. You've seen it dozens of times, I am sure. The show's protagonist is faced with an epic life-threatening event, or less impacting but still no less meaningful, a decision about whether to move/change jobs. Will the brave hero survive the ordeal, or will she perish? Will our favorite character stay right where he is so we can continue to enjoy his antics, or will he choose to move on, thus no longer being part of the show?

The problem with this kind of situation in contemporary television is that it has become common enough to be a trope, certainly. But because of this such scenarios have almost completely lost whatever sense of drama or suspense they were intended to lend to the show in the first place. Why? Because we the audience already know how the game will play out. In almost every case of such a trope, the hero survives or chooses to stay exactly where he is. In those few cases where the show does follow through on the threat, it is usually only a matter of time before the dearly departed returns, whether it is from beyond the grave (usually in a science fiction or fantasy show) or from wherever she moved to. In fact, it seems to me that the more hyped up the "event" is beforehand, the closer the actual threat gets to being no threat at all.

There is a largely simple explanation for this, of course. The biggest impact, and therefore the most drama, comes from the threat being leveled at a show's main character. But the actual loss of a main character on a popular show is a frightening idea for networks and other people who make their living from said show. With the main character gone, a show is left with three primary possibilities: End the show, wrap up the story, and walk away; replace the main character with someone new and run the risk that she will be seen as a pale imitation; or have that event truly impact the other players in the story, and have the rest of them move forward, evolving because of their loss.

The first two options are seen often enough, usually when the loss of a character is due to external circumstances rather than the story (such as if an actor chooses to or is asked to leave a show). I am hard pressed to think of examples of the first two options occurring simply because the show's writers felt the story had come to a close or demanded such a change. The third option, however, tends very much to be reserved for the story-driven loss of a character, but it is very rare indeed. So while writers want their audience to feel the jeopardy of the situations the characters experience, or the drama of the lives they are leading, their hands are largely tied in that they can't just get rid of everyone's favorite character because it would tell a good story. I think that's a sad thing, honestly, because it can make for some very compelling stories and character development, allowing for background characters to step forward and shine. Such a change can also breathe new life into a flagging series if pulled off well, giving it an extended run and pulling in new viewers who find something to appeal to them in what they once felt was lacking.

It's a fact of life that people move on and that people die, even people that we care about or consider the center of our lives. I wish that there was more television that could accept and mirror that fact, because the shows I have seen to do so have really surprised me with how amazing they became for doing so.

Primeval, for example. (You were wondering when I was going to get back to that, weren't you?)

Feel free to assume the bit after the photos is chock-full of spoilers for all four seasons of the show, by the way. (Photos from Flickr used via Creative Commons License, roll over photos for attribution.)

Primeval Seasons One and Two Main Cast

プライミーヴァル PRIMEVAL
Primeval Early Season Three Main Cast.

For the first two seasons of the show (which was only thirteen episodes), there were four primary characters on the show, and a few ancillary characters. The four mains were Cutter, Steven, Connor, and Abby. They comprised the field team that locates anomalies in the space-time continuum. The team's job is to monitor the anomalies until they close, track down and contain any prehistoric creatures that might have wandered through, and keep any innocent passers-by from wandering through and getting stranded in another era. If I had to pick one of them as the main main character though, it would definitely be Cutter--he was the guy calling the shots.

The first two seasons were largely one overall story arc, with the team coming together and discovering the anomalies, and learning about the threat posed via the anomalies and from none other than Cutter's wife, Helen, who had gone missing several years previous to the start of the series. The second season concludes with us more or less finally figuring out just what Helen is up to and with Steven sacrificing himself so that the rest of Team Anomaly can actually have the chance to stop her nefarious plans.

The very last bit of the season two finale is kind of interesting, because Helen pops up at Steven's grave promising that this is not the end, and they will be together again (they had a kind of thing on the side before she disappeared). The camera then pans out to show multiple iterations of Helen's henchman, indicating that she has figured out a way to use the anomalies to bring together multiple versions of people in one place and time. While this was a really freaking awesome bit of misdirect, thankfully, the show never carried through on Helen's promise, and Steven never came back.

This started season three with Cutter reeling from the loss of his best friend because of his crazy evil unfaithful megalomaniacal wife (seriously, watch the show, Helen Cutter was a piece of work). Every one on the team is affected by the loss, and new guy Becker (awesome though he is) just isn't cutting it in their minds. New girl Sarah likewise doesn't quite fill the empty space either (that's right, it took two people to replace Steven's scientific and soldiery skills, and that still wasn't enough). But still, everyone is doing their best to move on and continue their work--and stop Helen, because she is back at making their lives miserable--but we've got some amazing character development going on here because the writers offed a character and stuck with it. I will be honest I don't know if that actor left the show due to external circumstances or if it was purely a case of serving the story, but either way, the writers ran with it and it was awesomely done.

Then, a third of the way through the season, Helen shows up and freaking kills Cutter. Yeah, crazy woman killed her own husband, claiming she still loved him the whole time. Gah. So, bye bye Cutter, the show's true lead character. Wow. A third of the way into the season.

Again, the writers took this and ran with it, causing some great character development as well as moving the story along. Everyone was just starting to get over the loss of Steven, and now they are struck another blow with the loss of Cutter. It proves too much for one character, Jenny, who decides to leave the Anomaly Research Center (ARC). She puts in a brief appearance in season four, but just to show that she has moved on with her life and is still alive and well (and perfectly able to kick some prehistoric butt). There is actually a whole other interesting bit of plot/character development with her in seasons one and two, but this post is already long enough that I won't go into the whole Claudia Brown/Jenny Lewis thing other than to say it was really kind of spectacular, and a great example of both how evil Helen truly was and the further implications of the anomalies beyond wild creatures running loose out of place and time.

So, two and a half seasons in and we've lost two team members and an ancillary character has decided to leave. Now everyone has to get used to yet another new guy, Danny, who, along with Becker and Sarah, rounds out the new field team, with Connor and Abby still hanging in there. I think it is interesting to note that once Cutter was gone the show didn't try to bring any of the other characters, new or old, into the main focus. It was all about the team, not any one person. Even Danny, as the new team leader, was still very much portrayed as part of the team rather than the central player. The season closes with Connor, Abby, and Danny chasing Helen through an anomaly into the past. She is hellbent on going to the dawn of humanity as we know it and ending us all there before we have a chance to evolve into what we are today. Danny manages to follow her all the way to this era, though Connor and Abby get stuck somewhere in between (there was a series of anomalies). The season closes with (finally) the death of Helen Cutter, stopping her once and for all, but also with the realization that Danny is stuck in that era, and Connor and Abby are also stranded in the past, in yet another era altogether.

And here many of us feared it would stop, because the channel originally airing the show decided at the last minute not to renew it for a fourth season. Thankfully, another network was interested and though we had to wait an extra year in between seasons, we did finally get a season four.

Season four may have been less heavy on the dying, but all of the previous deaths are still taking their tolls. Also, we get a bunch of new people thrown in the mix with the old (Connor and Abby do make it back to their own time as the season opens). We learn that Sarah was killed in the year bridging seasons three and four, and even though it happened off screen, it still managed to have a huge effect on the show--Becker's grief over losing everyone he had been brought to the ARC to keep safe gave him a very nice chunk of character development and brought the character forward from the guy on the sidelines he started out being in season three to one of the mains in season four. Even the death of Helen has its impact, because her actions in the first three seasons had their own effects on all of the characters, and as season four closes, we learn she may have left other legacies as well, and not for the best. (Which means richer conflict in season five, yay!)

We do get three new characters introduced during season four who do not stick around, though I would consider none of them main characters. Still, their influence on the primary players is not minimal. Danny also does eventually pop back into the modern day, only to leave again shortly to continue the quest that originally brought him to the ARC in the first place (searching for his brother who disappeared through an anomaly when they were boys).

So, while this show's many comings and goings are certainly not always main characters, often enough they are. I truly liked all of the good guys that they killed off, as well as the good guys who chose to leave. I miss them, and was sad at their loss. But I am still happy that the show's writers made the call that they did. It has given the show a much deeper emotional resonance for me, and has strengthened the characters immensely, allowing for the kind of character growth that we don't often see on shows with a more static cast. It has also deepened the show's mythology in a way that gives every single episode more weight than on other shows of Primeval's ilk. I believe the risk is real every time, because I have been shown that no one is truly safe on this show.

The very premise of Primeval is a fantastical one, yet it feels so much more real that any other show I have watched in a long, long time, even those with no science fiction or supernatural elements, purporting to be set in the "real" world. I have to say, that is because the people on Primeval, just like in real life, come and go. I hope they keep it up for a long, long time to come.

(Okay, but I do also hope they don't kill Becker. Sue me.)

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