Saturday, May 26, 2012


When a story gets to me, I think I think too much and I know I expect too much. Like when I punched the seventh Harry Potter book in the spine and then spent three days writing a skeleton plot for an alternate ending. Or when I reworked  the script in my head all the way through the Where the Wild Things Are movie. Artistic disappointment gives way to a feeling of deep personal betrayal until I find myself shouting "I DON'T EVEN KNOW WHO YOU ARE ANYMORE" with all the hellish fury of a scorned woman. With OCD. And too much time on her hands.

It's maybe a little bit silly.

Television is consistently the worst offender. Understandable; the level of creative stamina required to sustain a story (that isn't a sitcom or a strictly plot-driven procedural) through 20+ hours of footage is Herculean. Also, I think the TV show schedule can't help but disrupt the creative process. With a film or mini-series, you have the end in sight from day one of filming. With TV, you have to do so much execution before you even think about an ending -- I can easily see how that would drain energy and enthusiasm for a project. Not to mention the fact that you start getting all sorts of feedback (ahem) before you have the conclusion (or possibly even the major story arcs) figured out. It's the old "be true to your vision" versus "be open to criticism" conflict times a billion, and continually played out at the moment of presentation, when there's no chance of going back to the drawing board.

So no hard feelings, ER, House, Lost. I understand why you broke my heart. We can still be friends. But I'll never forget those sleepless hours I spent trying to figure out how everything could have gone so terribly wrong.

(Maybe getting two degrees in English wasn't such a great idea, after all. What has been analyzed cannot be un-analyzed.)

But I can't help it. Something about Doc Martin, warts and all, has won my heart, and I can't love something without wanting to analyze it to bits. (Now then, who wants to date me?) Two strong seasons, an excellent third, a spotty fourth, and now the fifth is just wrapping up its USA airing and oh, how it fell flat. And after giving it a lot of thought (seriously, you don't even want to know) I think I've figured out the main reason why. Let's talk about art theory for a moment, shall we? (You lucky thing, you.)

Flashes of inspiration occur to the artist and spark the creative process, and a good artist learns to trust these intuitive leaps and go with what moves her, arrests her, or "just feels right". In my experience, this is closely tied to the interplay between the concrete and the abstract, with inspiration arriving in concrete forms (specific images, lines of dialogue, plot events) that, if executed well, will illustrate abstract concepts (love, pain, change) in fresh, moving, challenging ways and voila: MEANING.

Of course, during the editing process, plot and dialogue may need to be revised in order to clarify (or ambigui-fy) meaning, or sometimes whole chunks may need to be written "backwards" (e.g., "we need to establish X concept, so let's do A, B, and C.") But in my experience, the most successful pieces aren't deliberately written toward an abstract "end"; doing so tends to impoverish the work, whereas the intuitive route paradoxically serves in the end to communicate meaning much more powerfully.

In my opinion, this is where the creators tripped up. They got bogged down in the "must establish X" mindset and then jerry-rigged dialogue and plot points in service to that concept. They didn't wait or reach for those intuitive leaps that are the seeds of artistic magic. Maybe they got to too tired to play. In any case, the result was a flat season.

But I have faith. They can turn it around in season six. They can. Hear that, Show? You can, and you will. Or else.

(Hmm. This review ended up being totally bass-akwards. Let's start over.)

Doc Martin.
It's a fab premise: big-shot London surgeon suddenly develops crippling hemophobia and flees to a vacant GP post in a remote fishing village. Mutual hostility arises at once between Doc and the locals -- they're village idiots, and he's a class-A jerkface. Comedy-drama-romance-mystery ensues against the backdrop of the stunning Cornish coast. Quirky characters, witty exchanges, and Britishness abound. Also, there's a dog. So far, so awesome.


More awesome still is Martin Clunes in the title role. Doc's hideous bedside manner is hilarious and his total lack of social savvy (which may or may not be down to a touch of Asperger's; the show remains ambivalent on this point, which I appreciate) is frustratingly endearing. The crew-cut and perma-glower do his unusual face no favors, which is just as it should be; he looks scary yet naive, like a sort of schoolboy-ogre. Clunes has also developed a unique, head-to-toe physicality for the character, wielding his tall, impeccably-suited bulk with a forcefulness that's at once deft and awkward. One of my favorite elements of the show is Doc's occasional clumsiness -- these little bursts of restrained farce are always exquisitely timed and never fail to crack me up.

His hemophobia, aside from being a useful plot-point (providing humor, irony, conflict, pathos, etc.), is also an inspired bit of character psychology. In an early episode, Doc describes how the phobia was triggered by the sudden realization that the patient under his knife was "somebody's wife, somebody's mother". In other words, he experienced an unprecedented blip in the chilly detachment which has been the baseline of his career (and in fact, of his life). One flash of normal human empathy, and he "couldn't do it, [and hasn't] operated since".

Doc's sensitivity to blood serves, I think, as a subconscious signal that he is finally ready to grow/heal/open up emotionally. (Um, a little bit. Maybe.)
Blood is an apt symbol, as Doc has a sharp tongue that has probably drawn as much blood as his scalpel, and his callousness has kept him from ever giving a damn about doing either -- until now. The paradox, of course, is that surgeons hurt people in order to help them, which I suspect mirrors the internal transition Doc is going through; it's a hard, back-sliding, painful process, but he'll be better for it in the end. Of course, blood also represents positives: life, love, sex, family. One hopes that he's on a path toward embracing those aspects of his humanity, too, and getting to a healthy middle ground between icy detachment and phobic terror. It's an elegantly layered illustration of the classic "it's gotta get worse before it gets better" principle.

Not that we would ever want Doc to be "fixed". That would ruin everything, obviously. But it'd be nice if he could maybe, you know, not make everyone hate him.

Which brings us to Louisa Glasson, the village schoolteacher. She's everything Doc isn't: warm, beautiful, popular. At first they butt heads, then they become sort-of friends, and then GUESS WHAT HAPPENS. So all right, it's not the most original lovestory formula ever. But the writers liven it up with some unorthodox pacing, imaginative faux pas, and the odd moment of surprising tenderness. In particular there's a scene in season two involving late-night drunk-talking that for me ranks as one of THE most brilliant (and economical) star-crossed love scenes ever. 

Aaaaaaand... that's all I'm saying for now. So, y'know. Check it out, if you like. It's streaming on Netflix and Hulu. The end.


A said...

I've seen a couple of episodes of Doc Martin and liked them. But I've never gotten really into the show like I have with Spooks and every Masterpiece Mystery (but it could always happen as I run out of British TV shows to watch). I must say though, he is one of the ugliest people on screen. He's great in this part, but I've seen ads for William & Mary--and I don't think I could buy/enjoy him as a rom-com lead.

And just so you know, Zen (the one with Rufus Sewell) is repeating from episode 1 of the series this Sunday on PBS.

Liz-a-nator said...

Sometimes, I secretly am sad that I can't be married to Jacob AND you.

I haven't watched any of this show, but I think I might have to.

Also, this reminder about the creative process is EXACTLY what I needed. With knees knocking, I'm embarking on a few creative endeavors, and keep trying to plan everything in my art out, in an effort to minimize the potential for failure. As in, "Quiet, instincts. I have to make sure this is good, or it isn't worth trying." And my instincts are all, "But if you just TRUST me, it WILL be good!"

I think fear is a major hindrance in any artistic process, and I often wonder, when art fails to move us, if the artist was too afraid to trust their own instincts.

Jaggers Brain said...

Annieface I love you! And you sound even smarter when you write and analyze!

I have watched the first couple of episodes of Doc Martin, and now I think I will have to watch more!

Love you Annie, Allison, and Liz!

PS... when can we get together again???? Hmmm?????

Annie McNeil said...

The first few episodes have a lot of common starting-up hiccups, and even after it hits its stride there are plenty of flaws. But I was charmed nonetheless. Doc is definitely not the loveliest of men, and at first I was very much DO NOT WANT about the whole romance angle. But then I developed such affection for the character that it didn't matter anymore.

MUST SEE ZEN! We don't get TV, though. I keep hoping it'll be put on streaming, but I'd probably better just have the DVDs sent.

Liz -- alternate-reality marriage proposal accepted. I'm excited for you and whatever creative endeavor you've undertaken! Go with your gut, listen to your heart, follow your bliss, and all that rot.

Sarah -- How I wish we were back in our English cottage, watching telly together and having tea and chocolate digestives! I love you!

Carrie Lynn said...

In fear of looking like a complete and total moron...
why was the House ending so bad?

Annie said...

Oh, I liked how they wrapped up House in the end. I just felt like the show took a general nosedive in season 4/5 and never really recovered.

And I don't think you could look like a moron if you tried, Carrie Lynn. Unless you were playing one onstage, in which case you would be brilliant.

Sidenote: Anybody else watch British panel shows? They're hysterical, especially if David Mitchell's on. I love Stephen Fry's "QI". And I just watched a great ep of "Would I Lie" with Clunes as a guest:

It helps his appeal to see him being a dear and smiling with hair.