Wednesday, May 13, 2015

"The Blacklist" Powers That Be: Is There a Method to Their Madness?

By Chompstick

Recently there have been a few areas of contention for The Blacklist audience:  a great deal of animosity toward the character of Tom has arisen; there is a perception that the writers are deviating from the original canon of the show; and the snail pace of the series' secrets unfolding.

I recently heard a NPR radio interview with the creators/writers/producers of The Good Wife. It's not a show I watch, but on the days I'm on the road for three or four hours, I will listen to almost anything. I'm glad I was tuned in because I heard a few things that could be applicable to these issues with The Blacklist. Together with some questions Megan Boone, who plays Elizabeth Keen, answered in an interview earlier this year, I will address these sources of irritation.

Love Him or Hate Him?

Hero, Antihero ... Who is Tom/Jacob?

There has been much speculation that Tom was originally supposed to die by now, that he's superfluous to the story at this point, and that the writers are unnecessarily dragging out his story arc, winging it as they go. One thing is certain. Tom polarizes the viewers, although it appears that the pendulum is swinging more in the I-Like-Tom direction. Tom has been essential to Liz's story arc. I personally enjoy him a great deal, but that was not always the case. 

I have gone from disliking the dorky schoolteacher, loathing his time with Jolene, then enjoying the transformation when he kicked into action, once and for all, in The Pavlovich Brothers. He became the kind of guy racing around in a Mustang and flying around his dining room with Liz, beating the stuffing out of each other. I was once again disgusted by Tom when he reappeared during season two in The Mombassa Cartel as a cocky and contemptuous captive on the SS Dammit Liz. When he resurfaced in Germany in Earl King VI, I was once again a fan, as I continue to be. 

Instead of the writers changing their minds about what direction to take Tom in, maybe the allowance for change has been an intentional strategy since the beginning.

From The Good Wife interview with Robert and Michelle King:

NPR - "Alicia's life is unpredictable and sometimes unstable, which is what her creators want."

M. King "It creates much of TV is...having someone to root for, where it's a very clear line to go from point A to point B. You're always aware where the writer wants you to stand, where he or she wants you to sympathize and go. And I think what kind of mixes it up is when [the viewer doesn't] really know, and you get the sense the writer doesn't know what he or she wants the viewer to think, or who they sympathize with. It feels a little more like life. I was going to say, I mean, so often it's either hero or antihero and I think we're aiming just for a regular person, with all their complexity and messiness.

Liz is another example of a character who generates mixed feelings because of her frequent flip flop between the woman who stands up to Red as his equal, and the hesitant fledgling battling her mixed emotions over Red's manipulation of her. Complex, messy, real? Heck, yeah.

Stick to the Story! 

About writing a network series:

R. King - "'s more current because you are closer to airtime.  [We can] have it show almost immediately...that part is actually kind of fun...we have some ability to change based on our feelings of watching it, on feelings of our family's response.  So you can kind of have it be a more living thing as you go." 

M. King - "Yeah, the ability to course correct is very useful." 

So, instead of viewing The Blacklist writers' and showrunners' modifications to the story as they go along as haphazard and deviating from the mythology, perhaps we should regard these changes as being accounted for from the onset. Reflecting current events in the stories, both in the serialized and procedural elements of each episode, should be appreciated as an attempt to stay relevant and more engaging to the audience. I now feel that it's far more likely that each story arc has been planned with a very basic outline, but not with the intention of needing to following it closely. Logically, every character and every story arc could never have been thoroughly written from creation.

Swooning for Swans

That said, the long list of abandoned plot lines is annoying, to say the least, because we feel cheated, lead on, and kept in the dark. There isn't a satisfactory explanation for the existence of such things. Why did Gina Zanetakos have a picture of Tom in her apartment, for example?  What's the deal with the Swan Lake performance? So many of these details are seemingly important but never appear again. This a more serious problem that breaches the viewers' trust.

Viewer Involvement 

I have been vocal about my disdain for the showrunners modifying The Blacklist based on the input of viewers on social media. 

From an interview with Megan Boone -  "I really think that social media has changed the medium of television in a huge way...when we get a response from our fans, we are able to almost instantly respond to that within our story.  Within a couple of episodes, fans will see something play our that they wished for, or something that they noticed will be somehow woven into the story." 

Photo by Nigel Parry

I'm viewing this differently now, too.  If we can accept the theory that the stories were never intended to be set in stone, why shouldn't we be more accepting of them responding to the fans' input? Television is big business for creator/director/producer Jon Bokenkamp, the other show execs, and NBC. A happy audience = higher ratings = more advertising revenue = The Blacklist staying on the air. The route to a happier audience in the era of instant feedback is keeping them engaged with outcomes they desire.  It's just the reality of television in the age of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and discussion forums.  

Unique FBI Skills - Teleportation and Other Improbable Elements  

Per Megan Boone - "We are in the golden age of television The interesting thing about network TV is that we are developing and shooting episodes at a much faster rate [than cable or streaming], so that means our air date and our wrap date are very close."  

R. King - "...there has to be that dramatic element of things moving faster than they would in reality 'cause TV should be hyper-reality, just reality on speed." 

Arriving in Alaska

The burdens of time constraints make investigating every detail unobtainable. Additionally, if everything was realistic, it wouldn't serve the escapist aspect of television or film entertainment.  Do we really want to watch Liz and Ressler on a 8-10 hour trip to Alaska:  waiting on the tarmac for the plane. drooling while sleeping on the plane, knocking each other's arm off the shared armrest, disembarking, and combing their hair when the wind blows it awry? In the meantime, if this was the reality, Luther Braxton would escape during that time and there wouldn't be much of an episode to watch. If we're honest, reality isn't what we really want to see. Does it matter that the train station is in the wrong town? No, this isn't a documentary. I'm no longer going to focus on the discrepancies and enjoy the show for what we're really watching it for.

We're not Going to Wait Around Forever  

The real problem with The Blacklist is the continual delay to our discovery of all the mysteries.  Red is apparently omniscient, aware of all the secrets.  Who are Liz's biological parents? Are either of them alive?  What is Red's relationship to Liz or her mother? What happened the night of the fire? What does Red know about Cooper's past in Kuwait?  Is there a relationship between Red and Ressler, as was hinted at with their matching rare blood types in Anslo Garrick?  This list goes on and on. 

Don't Leave Me, Donald!

Although there have been more revelations in recent weeks, and hopefully there are more in the season finale, we have been kept waiting two full seasons for some of these answers to unfold. I believe there is a better solution to satisfy the viewers. Why not allow the audience in on some of the secrets while the characters remain in the dark? We would have the opportunity to enjoy the disclosure of each mystery, and our interest would be sustained by watching Liz and the other main characters discover the answers that we already know.  Such a format would provide us with two, rather than one, great moments of discovery. This would satisfy the writers' need to continue with their serialized. long-game mythology and the episodic procedural stories, while addressing our needs.

These are my observations coupled with my interpretations of two interviews.  I would be interested to read your thoughts in the comments below.


Megan Boone is beautiful in the photos in this interview. It's worth taking a look at the actress out of her navy FBI pantsuits and in a $14,000 gown!


Richard said...

Interesting info and lots of work.

I have to go back to my take on it trying to do many things at once.
1. A serial crime drama
2. A procedural crime drama with the procedural element key for obtaining audience and a place in syndication.
3. A type of fantasy spy drama somewhat based on The Avengers, James Bond, Crime drama who done it, etc.

I did not at first realize the shows many requirements and I'm not sure the show runners did either. And one of the most difficult elements of a serial is knowing how many seasons they would have to finish their story.

So, I've began viewing the show a LOT more on an ep by ep basis enjoying what it gives while wanting more but not being too disappointed in what actually is delivered.

I firmly believe they've changed things and had built in some flexibility from the start. I have seen a photo of the various story lines on a timeline from the writers room which gave me insight into this.

I've learned to not get too invested into a particular theory since the writers have this built in flexibility as well as change possibility

I guess I will sum it up this way, the show can be easily over analyzed and it's entertainment.

Chompstick said...

I agree that one of the most difficult aspects has to be the indefinite length of the series. With a serialized show, you can have an end-game plan but you can't possibly plan out all the details along the way, not knowing if you have one year or eight. The first year must be the worst because they would have no idea what the reception will be.

You confirm my opinion that there is built in flexibility.

While there are some folks very upset with the issues I presented, I have noticed that several times you have made comments about not allowing these types of things to detract from your enjoyment. I really admire your stance. I could name a few BSG commenters who stopped watching because of such frustration and it seems silly.

Tabasko said...

First, thank you for two photos of Ressler in one article.

Thank you for another well-written and thoughtful piece of work. I definitely agree with you. Your points are great. As the show has gone on, it has become apparent to me that it is indeed fluid. How could it not be, in a way? I've said before I've come to think they had some ideas for an involved, mysterious story that they weren't 100% sure of the direction of. Secondary characters have become important, maybe more than was thought, as the story has been told. Different ideas come up as the characters develop. It's a good thing.

I, for one, have become very happy that there is a fan response that's considered. Not to be completely self-involved, but even some questions we have debated right here have been explained. I'm sure those same things have been talked about elsewhere, but I still appreciate it.

I love that the characters are complicated and no one is 100% perfect. The fantasy of the time-travel and so on, it's never bothered me, but it's fun to laugh about here and there.

The show even pokes a little fun at itself at times, (abduction to find the Major was a good one; Red just blurted it out) so they're on it.

They should indeed keep tieing off at least some loose ends, or at least mention a few so viewers don't think those have been dropped. It's been happening more lately that they try to follow up and close things off more succinctly.

By the very nature of how it began, the show attracted a lot of speculation and interpretation. Sometimes, you'll love what happens. Sometimes you won't. The show touches on some emotional themes and will get emotional responses.

If we couldn't analyze (or over-analyze a little,) none of us would be here. :)

Chompstick said...

Well said, Taboloni. I think we agree on everything. Another aspect that affects how far a character is developed is the actor's skill level and if they deliver what TPTB are looking for.

And of course we over-analyze ...that's the fun part! We get to exercise our creativity and analytical skills, and go for broke with outlandish theories. It has become a hobby, hasn't it?

Rori said...

Quick HOP ON to say GREAT PIECE, Chompstick!! Pretty much agree with everything. THANK YOU for taking the time to think through and write all of this. Can't wait to see what tomorrow will bring.

Charmed said...

I love all the little idiocyncrasies of the show and the different characters. I can't say much about the blogs,
Twitter and lighting up the internet to find answers, as I have been one of many trying to find what I want to know, as soon as I realize what my question is. This has become somewhat a hobby for me, and a big plus for me is the fun, like-minded people with whom I've shared comments, facts and out of this world conjecture.

I know real people have many facets and we grow as we learn and have experiences. These characters are doing the same in my opinion. I don't have to have instant gratification, as a matter of fact I enjoy the rush of anticipation. I love being surprised.

Chomps, you did an excellent job on this article. I agree with your points, and just added a few off the wall comments as I usually do.

I may have been too tired and under the weather to post, but the article and the comments so far were to good to pass by.

Richard said...

So you guys don't think I'm trying to throw water on your analysis--lol.

1. I define over analyzing as passing a threshold having these components. A. Two opposing posters are just becoming circular in an argument and feelings get hurt. B. Posters are so invested into a particular position that they get offended/hurt or emotionally upset and so that anger or general "upsetness" is broadcast to all. So from what I have observed, I just don't like it when people get hurt and upset due to analyzing/arguing too much.
2. BTW, I find it interesting that most of my comment points are not responded to, so for me personally there is not a lot of analysis--lol.

Laocoon said...

Chomps - thoughtful piece!

Richard - I'm finding it's hard to analyze anything on this show right now. Maybe that's because of the pivot that they're trying to make at the end of this season.

I agree with others that there are many loose ends, perhaps too many. I'd like to see a slightly crisper storyline, as the loose ends are getting a little fatiguing and less entertaining for me.

Iowa Watcher said...

Well-written, as always, and you raise some good points, Chompstick.

I still regard the huge number of loose threads as sloppy writing, but you're helping change my mind about Tom/Jacob.

There's more, but I'm out of time online for now.

Thanks for sharing with us! That was quite an understaking.

Tabasko said...

#4 We Are The Chompions: Absolutely. The actor's skill level, their chemistry with the other actors, how the characters end up resonating with the writers and the audience. All are going to logically be part of it.

Yes, it is a super-fun hobby made all the better by hanging around the fine folks at BSG. :)

#6 Charmed: I hope you are feeling better soon.

#7 Richard: Not at all and good points. I try to respond to your comments often and others'. Sometimes I just read and agree and don't have anything to add. I think it's good to talk back and forth as much as possible, though. Response will encourage more comments and it helps build discussion.

Chompstick said...

Richard, don't let it discourage you if you feel your comments are being overlooked. I will bet EVERYONE here has felt that way at least once. Everyone. And that includes myself, many times.

If it's a comment I have put serious time and thought into, I will outright ask for someone to reply, and if it goes several days I will point it out again. Yes, it is a drag when you feel no one is paying attention. I'll make suggestions for how I would like a changes to BSG to be implemented and that gets ignored sometimes!! I just roll with it.

Speaking for myself as the blog owner, I don't regard anyone's posts as more important than someone else's, because I regard each and every reader/commenter as an asset, regardless of posting frequency.

There are some BSGers who are here daily and keep the place rolling. They are invaluable. Without them there would be no new readers attracted to the blog.

A subset of this type is those who posted all summer during reruns and general theorizing. Having fresh discussion all summer helped keep the place fresh and ready for the new season. They are invaluable.

There are a number of folks who moved over here to support us right from the beginning. I consider them the elders (not in age!). Some of them do not post often, but when they speak up people listen. Invaluable.

We have a few regular members whose main function seems to be facilitating conversation, acknowledging others efforts, and encouraging others to continue to post. They make people feel ... invaluable.

Every week there are brand new commenters who I'm so happy to see. Some will become frequent posters who we need to simulate growth. Sometimes we have someone chime in just once to introduce themselves and let us know they have been reading the discussions regularly even if they don't comment. Yay! Invaluable.

Richard I would put you in a category of commenters who contribute frequently, usually of significant length, almost always with something well thought out and thematic, the kind of stuff that gets others thinking. It's, um, invaluable.

You also fall into a vital group of members who maintain a positive attitude and frequently reminds us that this is a tv show. You keep most of us from going berserk, even if there are notable exceptions.

Everyone serves a vital role in keeping BSG going, and without any one group, the whole will be weakened.

Where do I fit in with relation to commenting? Not nearly as much as I would like to. Become an administrator and your free time is zapped. However, I read EVERY comment in full, and while I don't have the time to respond to a lot, they all contribute to the theories that are churning in my head. I know where almost every BSG member stands on the show issues (which is the purpose of no anonymous posters, BTW, so all of us have a reference point for our fellow members). At any time, I could address someone and be close to target on what they have voiced in the past. Without reference, I can tell you who thinks Red is Liz's Dad; who thinks Red is Liz's mom; who likes or hates Tom; who thinks the Christmas Eve Story is fiction; who thinks Ressler and Red are related (probably just me, lol); and many, many, many other topics. The point being, Richard, I may not be able to respond to yours or others' comments but they do sink it and contribute to my knowledge and enjoyment of BSG.

I am going to guess that the same applies to other regular users - they know each other well-enough to know where they stand and what they have previously said.

Don't sell yourself short, same to other members who might feel discouraged and invisible. I promise you that's not the case. I speak from experience on all sides - commenter, reader, administrator.

I'm not I previewing this ... y'all will have to deal with and errors. ;)

Chompstick said...

Tabbathtub - We are the Chompions - I love it!!

BL Mom said...

This makes good arguments. I hope people take it to heart some.

Magz said...

Good job Chompie!

Thanks for putting that together!

DougInWV said...

The "loose ends" are as much a part of this show's mystique, as much as Red, Liz and Tom. For one mystery solved, two emerge. These writers keep track of that for future use, to be certain.

That's half the fun, IMO.

Hell, I'm still waiting for Gina Zanetakos to re-emerge! (She did escape from a laundry detail in prison or something like that, right?)

Right now, I'm just wondering where those writers are going after changing the rules so drastically.

You know Liz is going to have an ally or three in the Post Office, right? And how much of an antihero will Ressler turn into? What new faces will show up in Season 3?

Patience is well-advised here. Red's ultimate story may come out a bit here, a bit there, but you'd better bank on all the questions we see being answered in the *series* finale.

Tabasko said...

DougInWV #15: Good points. Absolutely, I agree the loose ends are out there intentionally. For awhile, it seemed that none were being addressed and it made the show a little frustrating to watch. But, the close-out episodes for this season more than proved to me there is a reason for these things, as Chompstick has written.

I think TPTB wanted to shake the show up a little. I agree with the shift. At first, it was so mysterious as to what the actual Blacklist really was. But that formula needed a new approach. I think Red and Liz working closely and trying to take down The Cabal will be a great watch.

Tessa Bisolli said...

Chompstick, I actually like the idea of Red and Ressler being related. I doubt if as father and son, but I like the idea of a nephew. We have not being given too much of Ressler background, to be able to form any coherent theory, but I do like the concept.

I think all of the task group will become to some extent allies, as they learn of the Cabal. Some will need to stay on course to become the eyes and ears. Tom/Jacob will become an ally. he has demonstrated an invaluable skill, and true affection for Liz. I also think he knows who Red really is. Kudos to Ryan Eggold for portraying such a complex character so well.

I think a lot of the people do not like Tom/Jacob for the extreme violence with Liz, however those were extraordinary circumstances and Liz has reciprocated just as violently, both with Red (Stabbing) and with Tom/Jacob(shot/imprisonement). I think Tom/jacob did not really want to hurt her, o he would have killed her. he wanted to preserve her, and to do so, he had to hurt her a little.

Liz's character is becoming much better and more complex as Liz strips the civility in her and becomes the woman daughter to 2 counter intelligence officers: intelligent and ruthless.

The workers made very good choices with Tom/Jacob. He is a dangerous man, he is also a lost kid and someone who never had a real chance. He connected with Liz, with who Liz really is, even as Liz struggled to keep that part down. It is being a very nice story to follow, and I suspect it echoes Red and Katerina's story.

And thank you all, your theories and well thought replies really ease the pain of withdrawal.