Why I Like What I Like, Part 1

I don’t watch a ton of live TV, if any, but I watch a lot of shows on Netflix and DVD, usually at night when I’m painting miniatures (or, alternately, when I’m too lazy to do anything else). This gives me the chance to try out a lot different shows and characters and actors and writers, and because I am who I am I can’t help comparing them; I don’t just like or dislike something, I try to think long and hard about why I like or dislike it, and why other people might disagree with me.

One of the shows that I’m very lukewarm on–and I know this is going to get me pilloried in the geek community–is Doctor Who. What, you say? A sci-fi/fantasy geek who doesn’t like Doctor Who? Sort of. It’s not that I don’t like it, I just don’t love it. I can watch an episode and feel no compelling need to watch another. The ideas are invariably brilliant, some of them so much so that I’m still thinking about them weeks later: the episode “The Empty Child,” for example, was an alternate history horror story zombie apocalypse wonder, more original and clever than any similar story I’ve seen in ages. But something about it, like I said, just doesn’t drive me to come back. When I’m in the mood for an SF puzzle I’ll watch an episode, but the shows I really like are the ones that keep me up until early in the morning, watching one more episode and then one more episode until I have to force myself to stop. Why doesn’t Doctor Who do that to me?

My first guess was the lack of ongoing story. People tell me that Doctor Who eventually gets one, but I’m only 7 or 8 episodes in and haven’t seen it. I like ongoing stories because of the depth they can create, and television is uniquely equipped to provide that in a way that no other visual medium can. We’re in a golden age of TV right now, due in large part to creators’ willingness to serialize a long, detailed story, and I’m loving it. But the thing is, some of my very favorite shows aren’t serialized; the sitcom Community is one of the best things on TV, even being hiatus, and while that has some long-form emotional through-lines it doesn’t have a true long-form plot. Put more simply, it’s not a show you watch for the plot, you watch for the humor and the characters and the amazing writing. It’s less “I need to see what happens next,” and more “I wonder what they’ll think of next,” if that makes any sense. I watch serials to have my expectations fulfilled, and I watch Community to have my expectations subverted. Since this is essentially the same reason I watch Doctor Who–to see where they’ll go next and what new idea they’ll have to grapple with–I don’t think I can say that the lack of an ongoing story is the problem.

Comparing Doctor Who and Community points out a more striking difference that I think hits closer to the mark: the characters. The characters in Doctor Who are, to me, essentially blank slates; their job is to encounter a weird new thing, react to it, “solve” it, and move on. The weird new thing is the part that takes center stage, and the characters are defined only by their relationship to it. I understand that this changes later on, particularly with Amy Pond, who’s gotten more press than every previous companion combined–she and her husband are apparently very strong, interesting, complex characters. Please keep in mind here that while I haven’t watched a lot of the new Doctor Who, I watched the old one religiously, and they suffered from the same problem: the Doctor always has a distinct personality, but not a lot of depth. The characters in Community, on the other hand, are incredibly round, fully-realized people. They can do entire scenes that are screamingly funny and/or touching, not just for what the characters say, but for what we know about them. Their personalities and desires and flaws help not only to make them rich and interesting, but to make the subtle nuances more important.

Put more simply, Doctor Who is about what the characters do, and Community is about who the characters are. Neither is inherently better or worse than the other, I just happen to like the latter more.

I had intended to also talk about two other shows–they were, in fact, supposed to be the entire post, but my introduction got out of hand and, well, here we are. So next week I’ll come back and compare two more TV shows, probably my favorite two shows currently running, which have deep, interesting, wonderful characters and yet could not possibly be more different from each other if they tried: Breaking Bad and Parks & Recreation.

9 Responses to “Why I Like What I Like, Part 1”

  1. BC Woods says:

    I watched all of Breaking Bad in a sleepless three day weekend marathon, then went back to work the next day and was paranoid that someone was going to find out I’d been cooking meth.

    I went through all the stages of the fear of getting caught, getting fired, the shame of my grandmother finding out, how I’d adapt to life behind bars…

    Then I remembered “Oh, that was just a tv show.”

  2. Kurt says:

    It took me a long time to get into Doctor Who, and the first (or 27th, depending on how you count) series didn’t do much for me either until it started to wrap up and draw a lot of those loose plot threads together. Empty Child is good, but you’ve got the best episodes still ahead of you, episodes that give the Doctor more depth and give the companions something useful to do apart from imperiling themselves. The Girl In The Fireplace is probably my favorite, and it’s near the beginning of the Tenant run, and everybody always lauds Blink, in which the Doctor and the companion take a minor role. Those both really play around with time travel and work as solid, standalone sci-fi stories, if nothing else.

  3. I’ll second Kurt, and add that series 6 does some phenomenal things with its overarching plot arcs, and even reaches back to a pair of episodes in series 4 to make good on some foreshadowing that I doubt they were even aware they were doing at the time.

  4. Courtney says:

    When I first started Doctor Who, I admit that season one didn’t grab me, either. It wasn’t until Season two that things really picked up for me. In fact, it was during the last two episodes of season one that I found myself gripping my controller in anticipation. And the Christmas Special which followed it was pretty funny toward the end.
    Don’t judge Doctor Who based on season 1. The first season is fun to return to–I love rewatching the episodes now that I’ve completed all there is to see of the new Doctor Who adventures–but I’m a huge fan of the show, and I can tell you the first season was not what drew me in.
    Just keep on it. You’ll find that season one does have a bit of an ongoing story, and you’ll see a similar theme start up during season 2.
    The show is cheesy. It’s campy and some of the lines are so dramatic that they’re quoted all the time by my friends and me. but that’s the beauty of Doctor Who.
    Trust me. Give it some more time. You’ll warm up to it!

  5. Hahaha! I love Doctor Who. I grew up watching them as a child with my father, and I enjoy the new ones as well. One of the reasons I love them so much is exactly why it seems that you don’t…I can watch just one and be okay with not watching the next one right away. Granted, that’s more because I don’t have the time to watch more that one at any given time, but it’s also because they are almost completely self-enclosed. There are character stories that carry over, but the particular conflict is usually over in one episode (except the ones that continue – those I have to watch together). I like the freedom of growing with the characters as they learn about each other when they face the random/brilliant things they see in each episode. I’m kinda like that with books as well. I want each book in a series to end, not just stop. I want to be satisfied with the story when the episode is over, not left wanting. …Most shows are just not good enough for me to want to keep watching in that format, and even those that are can’t sustain that level of good-ness for long.

  6. Suey says:

    You haven’t arrived to any of the David Tennant seasons then, right? I predict you’ll feel totally different by then. His interpretation of Doctor Who makes the show. Anyway, I hope you feel differently by then! :) I’m just now to the Amy Pond/Matt Smith episodes and I look forward to seeing what all the buzz is about with them.

  7. Adam says:

    Oddly enough, I just finished watching Cowboy Bebop and I had pretty much the same thoughts about it. The characters were fun, and the individual episodes were interesting, but there was very little that helped integrate the different episodes. The end result being that the end of the anime, which could have been fantastic, really fell flat to me.

    By comparison, one of my favorite anime series is Basilisk (which is on netflix, check it out if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s great). Basilisk has interesting characters, and while each episode is fairly well contained, they are all part of a much larger story. The result of this is that the end of the series is really powerful and it feels like a conclusion, rather than just where they stopped.

  8. Brent says:

    I was all set to cry blasphemy until I realized you were still on series 1. I completely agree with you about those episodes. Series 1 was a bit of a slog, but after that I was hooked. You haven’t gotten to the part that everyone is raving about yet (other than The Empty Child), so you should be safe from the geek pillory for now.

  9. Bryce says:

    I think that you and I must share a brain when it comes to TV. My favorite shows running are Breaking Bad, Community, Parks and Rec, and when I’m feeling like just laughing at randomness I’ll watch 30 Rock or Big Bang Theory (I’m honestly not sure WHY I watch Big Bang, but I do).

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