Monday, December 16, 2013

WHEN TV AND MOVIE CHARACTERS JUMP THE SHARK

We’ve all heard the term ‘that show has jumped the shark’. It comes from the notorious episode late in the run of HAPPY DAYS where Fonzie performed in a water ski stunt show, still wearing his famous leather jacket, and jumped over a man-eating shark. The show, and the tough biker character, never recovered from that ludicrous storyline. The legacies were tarnished immediately and continue to be by the term ‘jumped the shark’, which is now applied to similar lapses in storytelling taste and judgment from Hollywood.
Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in the third season finale of HOMELAND
And last night, the Showtime TV series HOMELAND almost jumped the shark. And for my money, its central character Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) actually did. Showtime has had a huge problem with this sort of thing before, with their lead characters doing 180’s and becoming virtually unrecognizable. That’s what happened with serial killer DEXTER in its 5th season. He stopped being the murderer driven by bloodlust and turned into a cuddly ‘super dad’. His ‘jump the shark’ moment happened when the show’s writers wrapped up the Trinity Killer narrative and chose to let Dexter (Michael C. Hall) escape scot-free without any real fallout from that bloodbath.

The Carrie character's 180 on HOMELAND is as unfortunate. She’s gone from cold, calculating CIA analyst to silly schoolgirl crushing over a bad boy. What happened to the shrewd government operative that was so suspicious of returning war hero Brody? She knew in her gut that he'd been turned by Al Qaeda and hell, she was right. And even after she slept with him midway through season one, it still didn’t keep her from acting like a dog with a bone to expose him as he was about to blow up the Vice President in a CIA bunker. She could see the forest for the trees about Brody (Damian Lewis) when few others could.

Since then though, Carrie continually has taken Brody’s side, time and time again, even though he’s given her no reason to believe in him. His actions have been all over the map, literally and figuratively, and he’s betrayed his country more than once. He's also screwed over his wife and kids. And Carrie too. Repeatedly. Oh, and he killed the Vice President eventually as well, by inducing a heart attack when he cut off the man's pacemaker. So why did the writers continually ask us to root for Brody along the way and to cheer Carrie's constant defense of him? Her blind allegiance to him over cause and country has turned this once sharp and brilliant drama into a dithering soap opera.
Damian Lewis as Brody in season three of HOMELAND
And lest we forget, because the writers of the show certainly have, the whole driver of Carrie’s actions and the thrust of the series from the start was supposed to be her guilt over not stopping 9-11 from happening. It’s there in the credits every week, for heaven’s sake. So what happened to all that? A career CIA analyst is spun into a tizzy by one or two rolls in the hay with a dangerous double agent and somehow that makes sloppy storytelling acceptable? The sex with him is so astounding that it encourages a character to ignore everything else about her job, including direct orders from her boss Saul (Mandy Patinkin), as well as foreign policy moves given to her at behest of the President? How absurd a character is this that we’re supposed to be investing in?

And then last night (SPOILER WARNING) before Brody was going to be executed, he asked Carrie for one last thing and that was to not attend his public hanging. So what does Carrie do? She defies his request. She not only appeared at the early morning spectacle but she rather conspicuously climbed the surrounding chain link fence to scream out his name once last time so they could make eye contact before he dies. This is what a supposedly trustworthy CIA operative who’s designated as the point person on the ground there would do? That logic is patently absurd.

Carrie put everything in jeopardy – the mission, the embedded spy in the Iranian government, our nation's foreign policy – all for one last, longing look into Brody’s baby blues? And then four months later, she’s rewarded for her outrageous behavior by being promoted to run the whole Istanbul station. Do the writers have nothing but contempt for their audience as well as for their characters?
Bruce Willis in A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD
Of course, it’s not a whole lot better in the movie world these days either. Take the dumb mistakes made in the current entry in the DIE HARD franchise. This year’s fifth installment was utterly unwatchable as A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD turned the once vulnerable and relatable Detective John McClane into a virtually unstoppable Rambo. You’ll remember in the first film McClane was a ‘regular guy’ cop from New York visiting his estranged wife and kids for Christmas in LA. While at her office party, the high-rise was taken over by terrorists and McClane was the hostages' only hope. As he battled to save them and take out the baddies, he was all alone and stressed out about it. He even cried over his dilemma. And McClane got injured too, time and time again, leaping from one narrow escape to the next. He famously cut his feet to ribbons fighting against those Euro-trash villains as he battled them in the destroyed office space, and we in the audience empathized with his every agonizing step along the way.

But now, he acts like every other Bruce Willis action hero – squinting dismissively, whispering his acerbic dialogue like it’s all in a day’s work, throwing himself into harm’s way with nary a care. And walking away with little more than scratches. McClane is too cool for school now and thus, he’s become a bore. The average man has become Superman and the character and franchise have jumped the shark. (Oh, and where is McClane’s hair? Must every Willis action role now be played completely bald?)

There are dozens of examples of this kind of character betrayal in movie franchises. You can see it in everything from Freddy Krueger being turned into a laughable goon battling Jason Voorhees in the umpteenth NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET to the Jigsaw killer from SAW offing innocent cops when he was supposed to be taking out bad guys who had it coming. Thank God James Bond at least has remained almost wholly consistent to Ian Fleming’s vision. Bond may be a ruthless assassin and a heavy-drinking womanizer, but at least we know where he stands.
The Luke and Laura wedding on GENERAL HOSPITAL in 1983
TV may be the worst culprit for character shark jumping as series go on for years and years too long. And in doing so, very often these characters evolve to a point where they no longer resemble their original selves. Look at how sympathetic original villain Margaret Houlihan turned out to be by the later seasons of M*A*S*H, crying over not being invited to coffee by her fellow nurses. Paulie Walnuts started out on THE SOPRANOS in 1999 as a cold killer but was mostly the comic relief by its 2007th season. Carlos, Gabby’s husband on DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, went from hapless husband to crime boss, even though he was hardly the Walter White type. Perhaps the most notorious of all was the transition of Luke Spencer from Laura’s rapist on GENERAL HOSPITAL to the love of her life a year later. They went on to become soap’s most popular couple in the history of the medium. Sometimes audiences can be too accepting.

And it is all about keeping the audience, I grant you, so it's a tough gig. And keeping that fickle lot's attention when their itchy trigger finger is always hovering a centimeter away from switching channels on the remote is no easy task. And the longer a TV series or movie franchise goes on, the harder it is to keep things fresh. But hey, that’s the challenge to filmmakers and showrunners. Sorry guys, it's what you signed up for so be more demanding of yourselves and your work. Characters need to stay true to themselves, and the audience. When HOMELAND makes as many miscalculations with Carrie as it did this season, it turns a sharp character into a laughable caricature, and a once sterling drama into near farce.
Mandy Patinkin, Claire Danes and Damian Lewis in HOMELAND
At least now with Brody dead and gone, there is some real hope for the show again. Let's hope that Carrie will return to focusing her efforts on finding and fighting terrorists. Although the fact that she’s about to deliver Brody’s baby gives me pause. It's too easy to imagine her going from clingy, crazy girlfriend to manic baby mama, isn't it? Terror, indeed.

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