Bear with me; I have another get it off my chest rant about how something on the TV machine made me angry. In this case it concerns a show that’s risen quite high on the list of shows I watch: NBC’s Grimm.
I enjoy the show a lot, but I’m really annoyed about one particular aspect. It’s a glaring flaw in an otherwise very appealing show. I understand why the flaw exists, but it concerns something that’s generally bugged me in storytelling for a long time. In the case of Grimm it especially grates; I wish the writers had taken another tack.
The issue concerns keeping secrets from loved ones.
If you don’t know the show, but someday plan to check it out, be warned I’m touching on plot elements here you might not want to know about. The issue threads through all four seasons so far, although in the current season (four), I think those threads are finally ended.
For those unfamiliar with the series, but reading this post anyway, Grimm takes place in modern-day Portland, Oregon. It centers on police homicide detective, Nick Burkhardt, his partner, Hank Griffin, along with assorted co-workers, friends, and sweethearts.
But the show is a great deal more than a police procedural. It’s a dark fantasy that, as the name suggests, keys off Grimm’s famous fairy tales. The real ones. The original dark and scary ones.
The idea is that the creatures described in those tales — and in other various monster legends — are real. These beings, collectively called wesen (pronounced “vesen”), normally look and act like humans unless they woge (pronounced “vo-gay”) — transform into their creature self.
Wesen can woge consciously — in which case anyone can see them — or unconsciously when stressed. The latter is invisible to anyone except “Grimms” — humans from a special ancient bloodline with special powers that help them fight wesen. Detective Nick is a Grimm.
Most wesen live their lives in peace and in secret, but some are bad and prey on humans. Grimms for centuries have indiscriminately hunted and beheaded wesen, but Nick is friendly to all peaceful wesen. The show concerns his dealings with the bad ones.
Okay, enough context; here’s my problem:
Nick keeps all this secret from… well, everyone. The premise is that it’s “not explainable” (a phrase repeated far too often), that no one would believe him, and that everyone would think he’s crazy. There are major plot threads that weave through the first two seasons — and kick in again in the third — with regard to the havoc this secrecy causes.
This is a major case of plot requirements driving character behavior in unnatural — and arguably stupid — ways. The idea of heroes keeping secrets from their loved ones has bugged me as far back as Superman and Spider-man (and many, many others). Doesn’t love involve some trust?
Nick allows his partner, Hank, to start losing his mind due to seeing impossible things through his association with Nick. The situation goes way past any reasonable point where keeping the secret makes any sense at all. And Hank’s ignorance has unfortunate consequences.
In keeping his Grimm identity secret, Nick allows his relationship with Juliette Silverton — whom he loves and lives with — to deteriorate disastrously.
In fact, he puts her squarely in the path of deadly danger and both pay a heavy price for that. Even after that danger has passed he keeps the secret beyond any sense at all.
In the third season, poor Sergeant Drew Wu, a key co-worker, has experiences with a woged wesen that literally puts him in a straight jacket. And still Nick keeps the truth from him.
All three do finally learn what’s really going on and become allies with Nick in his dealings with wesen. (Wu’s reaction is kind of a hoot.) But so much misery and danger would have been avoided if Nick had simply communicated with them.
Obviously the point of the secrecy was to generate that misery and danger, but it feels like lazy plotting to me. The characters must go out of their way to avoid doing the obvious — and right — thing to sustain the plot. I’m a lot happier with the show now that all key players are in on the secret!
I’m close to being caught up. I started watching at the beginning of season three. Several friends reported liking the show, so I gave it try and was hooked immediately. I like the basic premise; I like the characters; I like the show’s values (except for the secrecy, but perhaps we’re finally past that).
TNT has picked up Grimm for re-runs of previous seasons, so I have the chance to catch up on the first and second seasons. Bless you TNT! They gave me the same opportunity with Castle, another show I started watching years after it premiered and came to love.
[I think TNT rocks! They’ve created several shows I really like: The Closer, Major Crimes, Perception, Rizzoli & Isles, The Librarians) plus once a show ages a little they don’t disable fast-forward in On Demand, which almost all other channels do (and I hate them for it).]
But I got so angry watching the four season two episodes last night that I wanted to Hulk Smash my TV. These were episodes where the bad things that happened to Juliette begin to resolve, although she’s still in the dark at this point about what’s really going on.
Worse, several conversations require the characters to carefully and explicitly avoid saying the obvious things that would have made all their lives a lot better. Juliette’s misery really got under my skin, and it could all so easily have been avoided.
The idea is that she wouldn’t believe him, but by this point there is so much clear physical evidence he can present her that secrecy makes no sense at all. Hank knows at this point, so Hank can back him up.
Plus he’s got Monroe, Rosalee, and Bud Wurstner, all friendly wesen who support Nick and can demonstrate (let alone confirm) the truth of what he says.
Extra plus, we live in a world filled with fantasy fiction. Is it so hard to believe someone just couldn’t accept the ideas involved? Really?
One bit I loved in the movie Galaxy Quest was how the show’s fans reacted when they found out it was all real. They were delighted! Maybe it’s just me and a lifetime of SF and Fantasy, but my reaction would be: Whoa! Cool!!
Is it really impossible for Nick to lay the groundwork for an explanation? He’s got support from others, the ability to demonstrate the truth, a trailer filled with books and weapons, and a lot of strange events that make much more sense once explained.
This is the other side of the coin of the “mistaken identity” theme, which also requires careful dialog and plotting to preserve the mistake. Here it requires careful plotting and dialog to preserve the secret. It’s hard to pull this off well.
(I’ll mention again the best mistaken identity story ever: The Bill Murray film, The Man Who Knew Too Little. It’s a masterful exercise in double-meaning dialog and plotting. And it’s one of the funniest films in my collection.)
One of the things that made the otherwise fairly silly (but kinda fun) Nick Cage film Ghost Rider more worthy in my eyes is that he immediately tells his girlfriend what’s happened to him. You don’t see that very often, and I heartily approve.
I can understand why Superman and Spider-man (and many others) keep their identity secret from the world. Sure, no problem, that makes sense. But why does Supes keep his secret from Lois Lane? (And why is Lois Lane, ace investigative reporter, completely thrown off the trail because Clark Kent wears glasses?)
The idea is that loved ones are endangered if the world knows about their association with the hero in question. But wouldn’t they be even safer if they knew the risks involved? Is the belief that they would spill the beans? That only the hero can be trusted to keep his secret?
Not a lot of faith in your loved ones, and a potential source of misery for them. Batman — one of the most paranoid superheroes ever — shares his secret with Alfred, and that’s worked out quite well. But Peter Parker just can’t trust the woman who raised him.
And then there’s this: I’ve not seen the rest of season two, yet, but from later seasons I know Nick and Juliette are doing fine together. But frankly, if I were Hank or Juliette or Sergeant Wu, given all they go through, once I found out what Nick hadn’t been telling me…
I’d be really, really pissed at him.
Especially in Juliette’s case. She especially has suffered some terrible things (an attack by a witch, a coma that caused her to forget her relationship with Nick, a strange romantic compulsion for another man, and when last seen some very odd and disturbing visions). Considering all this, it’s amazing she stays with him. So much of her woes stem directly from the damn secrecy.
Wasn’t that the theme of every episode of Three’s Company (and countless other sitcom episodes)? That secrets just lead to misery? Isn’t this one of those things we were supposed to learn in kindergarten?
March 7th, 2015 at 7:28 pm
So my big question for you, Wyrd. Did you watch the first episode of CSI: Cyber? Thoughts? I’ve never been a fan of the CSI series, but I was very underwhelmed.
BTW, I share you thoughts about TNT and I’ve also found some good shows at USA, especially Suits, which just finished its season and is off until summer.
March 7th, 2015 at 7:35 pm
I haven’t, yet. I’ve been waiting for On Demand to go from the 60-minute version to the (slightly) shorter one (usually around 53 minutes). It means being forced to watch fewer commercials, but even at 53 minutes, that’s 11 minutes of the damn things. I’m expecting to be underwhelmed, so who knows — maybe they’ll surprise me.
I did catch the first episode of Battle Creek. I found it iffy at first, but by the end I’d decided I’d watch a few more to see where it goes.
I haven’t gotten into any USA shows. No reason other than — as you pointed out — I already have a pretty full list of shows I have to keep up with.
Say: Bummer about Hunter Pence! At first they were saying “out indefinitely” but last I heard it was six-to-eight weeks.
March 9th, 2015 at 7:49 pm
Okay,… I just saw CSI: Cyber… and, wow, that was all kinds of stupid! Caricature cardboard characters, stupid plot filled with utter nonsense, and — hey — they even have a holodeck! I was expecting it to be bad, but it managed to be even worse than I imagined. It was just as idiotic as the commercials made it seem. (When the advertising experts can’t polish the turd, you know it’s really going to stink.)
So the main character — complete with past traumatic event driving her (and, oh, how I hate that meme) — is a woman, and the first episode involves babies, and the men all seem secondary (we’ve got the video game addict, the fat super-coder, and the young criminal hacker, plus a clueless cuckold husband)… think they’re going for a female audience?
Final answer: total piece of shit.
March 9th, 2015 at 8:14 pm
Yes, I agree. I’ve already wiped it off of my DVR recording list.
March 9th, 2015 at 9:50 pm
Yeah, I won’t be watching it, either.
March 7th, 2015 at 8:59 pm
Grimm is a great show. The keeping of secrets has two functions.
1) It’s an easy plot device. The idea is that a person is so scared of the reaction that they avoid doing the right thing. Now that Sergeant Wu is in the know, I don’t think there’s any more excuse to keep it from people, unless they introduce another big character in the mix again.
2) Their portrayal of making wesen believable depends on the secrecy being a big deal. And I think that if they have the characters treat it too flippantly with people who aren’t in the know, then it diminishes the atmosphere.
I get that it’s frustrating as hell when there’s plots involving easy remedies but stupid characters. But writers are allowed to use audience knowledge against them.
I’m actually kind of surprised you haven’t been picking up Person of Interest at all. This fourth season has delved into all kinds of BIG moral questions. The show is practically swimming in philosophical underpinnings. And while they do keep secrets, there are also more organic reasons for keeping them.
March 7th, 2015 at 10:07 pm
1) Right. Understood on both counts. My complaint is that the secrecy goes far beyond the point where it makes any sense (Hank questions his mental balance and Wu really goes nuts — there’s no excuse for that other than plot requirements).
2) Agreed, and I’m not talking about treating it casually. It’s more a case of the situation rising to a level that demands explanation, plus we’re dealing with loved ones who really need to be in the know. As I said, if I were Hank or Juliette or Wu, I’d be really, really angry at Nick.
I’ve been watching Person of Interest for a couple seasons now. I don’t find it all that deep though… But maybe I’m misunderstanding what you mean — can you elaborate? I like the main characters; I like their values; the stories have generally held my interest (but the Samaritan thing is getting old). The thing that seems a little silly about the show is the premise of saving one person per week in one city. Given all the other stuff that goes down, even in NYC, I’m a bit underwhelmed by that aspect.
March 8th, 2015 at 11:12 am
Essentially what I’m driving at is that the show really is about whether or not one person is worth more than anyone else, and where the needs of the many might outweigh the needs of the few. Each season also involves a big question. Season 1 wonders about whether or not surveillance and privacy exist anymore, and what implications does that have? Season 2 questions whether we should place implicit trust in AI. Season 3 is one big dissertation on Machiavelli, and whether the ends really do justify the means. And season 4 I think explores the darker side of the previous issues.
It is my hope, though, that this season is the darkest that it gets. Finch, Reese, and Root have had their backs to the wall for ages now, and I think they deserve a break. I’d also like to see some of the more positive aspects of what they’re doing. Perhaps there could be an episode where they end up meeting someone that they’ve saved and that person does something nice for them.
Also, there was something on the DVD set for season 3 where the creators of the show actually had a panel of producers and philosophers go into what they were doing in the third season. So you might want to pick that up to have a look-see.
March 8th, 2015 at 2:02 pm
I see what you’re getting at. The themes you mention aren’t new, obviously. The question of individual value versus social good, and of means and ends, are very old. The questions invoked by AI are a bit newer (meaning only many decades rather than many centuries), but they often reflect older ones.
So the real question for me is how well stories that explore them are told. PoI is good enough to keep my interest — it definitely rises above the usual, but I’m not sure I see it as deeply philosophical. It seems more to answer the questions you’ve mentioned rather than really exploring them.
For example, on the matter of surveillance and privacy: In the show’s context the former exists in big measure; the latter does not. The original intent of The Machine (terrorism) seems only mentioned in passing with an implication it’s a Good Thing. Finch’s use of it is clearly A Good Thing.
The Samaritan arc does set that in juxtaposition with misuse, but that leaves us wondering how we use our inevitable tools in a Good Way. (A similar question exists wrt guns and atom bombs.) The important question of how we accomplish that seems largely unexplored. How do we insure we have Harold Finch steering the ship rather than John Greer?
And as a career software designer, the use of AI is one of the things I find a bit flawed about the show. It’s really not a show about AI in any real sense; The Machine is a fait accompli. (The AI could be replaced with a team of CIA analysts and be largely the same show. The NBC show, State of Affairs, is largely the same show, although that one was so lame I stopped watching after five or six episodes. PoI has stayed on my watch list for over two seasons now, so there’s that. 🙂 )
But that’s just me. I’ve been into SF and questions like these for over 50 years, so I’m definitely a bit jaded and hard to impress!
March 8th, 2015 at 2:04 pm
If you don’t mind me asking, which seasons have you watched?
March 8th, 2015 at 2:10 pm
I was trying to figure that out. All of season three and the current season four (so far), for sure. Looking at the list of episodes, some of the season two ones sound familiar. Jumping into the middle of a series these days — given the modern tendency to both series-long and season-long arcs — can make things very confusing. So I may not remember the first ones I saw due to that confusion. Pretty sure I haven’t seen any of season one.
March 8th, 2015 at 3:42 pm
Season one is pretty much where they address the difference between having a CIA team monitoring things, and having an AI. One of the backstories was Finch actively having to keep a government higher up from trying to hack the machine.
Season two starts and ends with Root and Finch having some pretty animated discussions about the ethics of building such an AI. Root actually gets angry at Finch at one point for crippling it. You don’t know why at the time, but in season 4 when Finch is trying to build the machine just right, there’s some explanation.
Personally, I like my science fiction with deep questions, so admittedly I am a little biased about the show. That being said, I agree that jumping into modern shows can be confusing. Even NCIS had me boggled a bit, but thankfully they still focused on the procedural aspects of it. Maybe PoI could learn from them. 12 seasons on the air is pretty good evidence that they know how to do a show.
March 8th, 2015 at 9:01 pm
So what was presented in season one that differentiates The Machine from a team of analysts? From what I’ve seen in s.3 and s.4, there really isn’t any difference. The team gets analytical information from… some source and then does what it does.
Part of what devalues the show a bit for me is that The Machine — and most of the computer-related stuff — amounts to a kind of modern wizardry and magic. That pushes the show a little into the fantasy realm for me, so I don’t really see it as being about AI as such. I’d find a show about Finch’s efforts to build the machine a lot more interesting, especially if handled more realistically. Some of those flashback scenes have been very enjoyable for me.
I totally agree about SF with deep questions — I just don’t see the show as that deep. No TV really can hope to be and keep viewers (the original Star Trek didn’t, for example). As I said above, it definitely rises above the usual. And there’s this: I loath J.J. Abrams and am highly biased against anything with his name on it. Yet I watch PoI anyway, and that says something!
NCIS really is the proverbial “lighting in a bottle” isn’t it. Still a top-ranked show in its 12th year. I think it’s a combination of excellent and very complex characters (who evolved and change), well-chosen actors behind those characters, excellent values, excellent stories, and excellent production. Other than the occasional plot clinker, there just isn’t much you can complain about.
March 9th, 2015 at 2:26 am
The explanation given in season 1 is that the Machine was developed to analyze the raw feed of signals intelligence coming in from the NSA. So basically the NSA takes all of its raw data and sends it over to the Machine, and it does what would take a cost-prohibitive amount of people to do. The Machine itself is a collection of a TON of servers that was spirited off to some secret place.
There’s a really good episode in Season 1 that actually takes care of a lot of these questions. It’s got a lot of flashbacks to when the government was asking for a test run, and they went into Finch’s thinking on the matter. It explains how the Machine can analyze data faster, make better associations, and even how it can insert information into official reports so that way it wouldn’t be discovered.
March 9th, 2015 at 12:34 pm
I have been able to pick up on the basics of how The Machine works from comments the characters make (and some of it is implicit in the situation). But I have wondered exactly where The Machine resides. I take it we don’t know exactly where that is.
None of this really changes what I said about a team of analysts, though. The Machine operates on a scope that would be, as you say, prohibitive and much slower, but it’s not substantially different from what intelligence analysts do on a smaller scale WRT specific targets of interest. There are interesting questions embedded about automation and the invasiveness of computers in our lives, but these aren’t really AI questions. PoI really isn’t about AI, per se; the AI is a given and part of the context. It really amounts to a kind of magic, and people like Harold are more like wizards than actual software designers.
[sigh] Having worked with computers for over 40 years has it downside now that computers and software have become such key players in current storytelling. You may be aware of the phenomena of reading a newspaper story concerning a topic you know well and seeing all the mistakes (and wondering if all newspaper stories are so error-ridden). That applies to storytelling, too, and it’s worse with SF because not only does all the fiction have to be right, so does the science.
The handling of the technology stuff and (especially) the computer stuff is what makes it hard for me to like the show quite as much as you do. Definitely knocks it down a few pegs. And the idea of saving one person per week — given how many need help throughout the country — makes the show seem a little silly in that aspect. The problem for me is that both of those are really central to the show, so it’s like a really interesting house built on a slightly shaky foundation.
Although! As I write this it occurs to me that one way you could “Star Trek” that last issue is to say that Harold and his team are a “pilot project” that The Machine hopes to expand upon. That doesn’t completely avoid some of the conceptual problems, but it makes that one lone team make a little more sense.
And may I just say that, while we may not hold the show in the same regard, this has been a very interesting conversation exploring it. I’ve never given the show much thought, so I’ve enjoyed this and may even have a slightly improved appreciation for the show. I do hope they bring Shaw back; I’ve always had a thing for warrior women, and Root and Shaw are hugely attractive to me. I really like Bear, too — any show with a dog gets extra points! 🙂
I very much agree with something you said earlier about wanting the team to be a bit less beleaguered. Time to vanquish Samaritan and get on with business!
March 19th, 2015 at 5:25 pm
I have a lot of issues with grimm too. I loved the first series but then it got weird and I couldn’t watch it anymore. It was about the point that nicks fiancee gets amnesia. It was a shame as it was quite interesting otherwise.
March 19th, 2015 at 5:52 pm
Ah, see, I started watching after all that happened and Juliette was back to normal with Nick. I’ve gotten to the point in the TNT repeats where we’re almost past that point (and I’d be caught up). I really could have done without the whole Juliette amnesia thing (on a lotta levels), mos def!