I was going to post a piece -- as I have the last couple of years -- doing a quick overview of the new crop of Canadian TV series, offering a few comments and opinions, and saying what (I felt) was working and what wasn’t. And I still will. But this week, I’m going to devote a whole essay to looking at the CBC’s new night time soap, MVP.
Okay, given the poor -- and apparently -- slipping ratings, one might argue why devote a whole essay to MVP? If people aren’t watching, they probably aren’t interested in reading about it. But then again, that’s precisely why it should be looked at. Particularly because, at least initially, MVP seemed to have the critics behind it -- the worthy pundits seeming to get a kick out of its deliberately unpretentious, lurid, nothing-more-weighty-than-an-hour’s-entertainment attitude. But it’s also gotten quite a few detractors as well. But what seems to sooooo often happen in these cases, I’m finding that neither those who like it, nor those who don’t, are really making a good case one way or the other. In fact, the analysis of the show is more superficial than the surface ice on a rink.
And call me anal retentive, but I think a certain healthy analysis, of both good and bad shows, successes and failures, can be productive, particularly in Canada’s entertainment biz which is so often struggling to find, or recreate, successes.
So here’s the set up: MVP is a night time soap set within the world of professional hockey. But, unlike previous hockey dramas, its emphasis is decidedly on the glamour and behind the scenes shenanigans, focusing as much on the women in the players’ lives as the players, and where we rarely get any closer to the ice than the locker room. We see the characters preparing for games, we see them coming away from games…but we rarely see them playing. And that’s because the series is trying to be a hockey series for people who don’t necessarily care about hockey (while also being for people who do).
The series has been likened to everything from Desperate Housewives to Grey’s Anatomy -- both as a compliment and as a pejorative put down.
The CBC was clearly convinced they had a hit on their hands -- but the ratings have been disappointing to say the least.
Let’s step back for a minute.
First off, some of the assumed success of MVP was that Canada is a hockey nation, so a hockey series would be a sure fire winner. Yet, that has never been the case, not in English-Canada (French-Canada, it’s a different story). The attempts to marry hockey and fiction have included He Shoots, He Scores, Power Play, The Tournament, TV movies like Net Worth, and the big budget bio-pic, The Rocket -- none of which have done well in English Canada. That doesn’t mean someone can’t come along and defy the odds by making a hit hockey drama -- but it will be defying the odds, not, as the marketing for MVP seemed to feel, be a slap shot. There was a feeling that, in the marketing, the CBC felt as long as they said” “hockey” and “soap opera” the audience would be there.
Looking at MVP itself, in many ways, it’s not a bad series: it’s slick and expensive-looking, it’s stylish, the actors are competent, and it has enough characters and plot threads to cut between that the pacing is snappy. But there’s a feeling even behind the scenes there must’ve been some doubt as to what they had and how to present it. The series is referred to as MVP: The Secret Lives of Hockey Wives -- some ads blazoning Secret Lives of Hockey Wives in big letters that overshadow the MVP. Yet in the series’ title sequence itself, it’s simply titled MVP. It’s a minor point, but isn’t there a problem when the people doing the series can’t even seem to decide on what it’s called?
So now…let’s analyse it!
In many respects, I think a key flaw with MVP is that the makers fell in love with their milieu, or the idea of the milieu. Perhaps they read hockey biographies, or scanned hours of microfilm of sports stories, to totally immerse themselves in their chosen idiom. And so they crafted a broad canvassed drama that would allow them to cover all the corners, peopling it with characters lifted from that world -- “The Rookie”, “The Captain”, etc. At times it can seem almost like an anthology, as peripheral characters suddenly will be pushed into centre stage to play out a particular story idea -- when, it could be argued, the series needs to first focus on and develop its leads (for example, a couple of episodes into it, we are abruptly introduced to Hugh Thompson, as a player on the decline, and Inga Cradnel as his domineering wife -- characters who suddenly seem to be dominating the episodes as if they’re main characters…and then are written out just as quickly a few episodes later as their story arc ends!)
But that’s not what drama is about -- drama is about creating interesting characters you care about, not just archetypes.
Take the Desperate Housewives comparison -- I’m sure when they were cobbling together Desperate Housewives, they started out saying, what are some archetypes that would reflect different aspects of the “housewife”? And so they settled on the single mom, the “regular” housewife, the “power” housewife, and the gold digger. And then…they fleshed them out, softened the stereotypical edges, and made them interesting characters in their own right.
And then -- and I can’t stress this enough (because it’s a lesson that far too many writers and would be writers just don’t get) -- they made them friends -- friends who actually like each other. A good way to make the audience care about a character, is to make them someone who cares, and is cared about, in turn. In fact, when Desperate Housewives suffered a lag in the ratings at one point, the common wisdom had it that it was because the series had de-emphasized the friendship, shunting the characters into isolated storylines, not letting the actresses play off of each other. Likewise, Grey’s Anatomy relies a lot upon the relationships between the characters.
In MVP, most of the characters don’t even seem to like each other -- and that’s when they have much interaction at all. Most of the characters seem to exist in their own separate story lines, only occasionally passing each other like ships in a foggy night. For instance, we have the team Captain, and its self-destructing star player -- guys who, we are told, actually once engaged in a menage-a-trois together. Okay, I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing if you’re going to get naked in a bed with another guy, and you’re not gay, you have to be on pretty good terms, don’tcha think? Yet in most of their scenes, they barely seem to know each other, let alone like each other.
Character conflict is at the core of drama…but it has to be leavened with friendship and relationships.
And ironically, for a series that’s selling itself as a soap, and is going for the “women” demographic (and the thinking being women like mushy stuff), what’s significantly missing from MVP are romantic plot lines. Other than the central romance between the captain and the guileless non-hockey fan, most of the characters don’t have love interests, or their love relationships are of the intellectual/academic variety (they are stalkers or being stalked): that is, we aren’t really meant to be emotionally involved in the story, or hope the love birds will overcome their obstacles. And ironically, that central romance to which I alluded -- is also one almost completely devoid of obstacles, so that there’s no inherent drama (in Grey's Anatomy, f'rinstance, the heroine's relationship with "McDreamy" faced the obstacles that he was her superior...and still technically married). Funnily enough, when the team captain in MVP had a brief dalliance with a sports reporter, there you had a relationship that might’ve provided some dramatic fuel, as their love would have to overcome conflicting loyalties and, arguably, professional scorn (and, for that matter, actress Sarah Allen is a performer who deserves more than a couple of episodes in a throwaway sub-plot).
Strangely enough, unlike some Canadian productions I can think of, you don’t get the impression the creators despise their characters. In fact, they do seem to like them, for all their flaws and failings. Which is good -- sort of. But there’s still a slight condescension at work. They may like the characters -- but in a kind of patronizing way, where you don’t really believe they necessarily identify with them. In fact, most of the characters seem kind of like bimbos and himbos. This is particularly odd with Kristin Booth’s character who, as the “outsider”, might be most expected to represent the creator/audience avatar…but comes across as kind of dimwitted and Booth plays her scenes as if she thinks she’s auditioning for a sitcom (or, worse, for Sophie)!
Another problem with the series is a strange lack of drive or purpose to the characters -- most of whom are purely reactive, being acted upon by events. Now, granted, that’s realistic -- that’s how most of us live our lives, and they are just, y’know, hockey players. But this is a drama -- and in drama, we tend to like our characters to be a bit more proactive. So we have the team captain -- who basically just looks grimly sympathetic as his father gets fired as coach, or as other players get traded…but doesn’t actually do anything to stop it from happening. In real life, sure, but, remember…this is drama. Oh, there’s Matthew Bennett as the sleazy team manager who does things, like working to get the coach fired, but even with him we don’t really get any sense of a bigger goal (I mean, why get the coach fired?) About the only character who has any kind of goal/purpose in her life is the bankrupt hockey widow (Deborah Odell) who’s trying to rebuild her financial life -- but even there, we can ask, rebuild it for what purpose? Her daughter hates her and is a brat anyway, so it’s not like we can say she’s doing it for her family. And she just hasn’t really been crafted into an interesting character we care about.
The problem is…they’re hockey players. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a hockey player…but it’s not like it’s a profession that necessarily has an greater purpose to it. There’s a reason why so many TV series are about doctors, lawyers, cops, etc. Because then the characters’ actions can have meaning. As mentioned, some have likened MVP to Grey’s Anatomy because both are seen as nighttime soaps -- but in the latter, the characters are doctors. Every storyline has some greater relevance outside of the characters personal lives as they work to save patients.
Think it’s a minor distinction? Consider TV’s West Wing. Created by Aaron Sorkin, it ran a number of years with great reviews and decent ratings, chronicling the adventures of the white house staff as they grappled with big and powerful issues…yet Sorkin’s other series -- Sport’s Night, about sports reporters, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, about a TV variety show -- despite featuring the same idiosyncratic dialogue, the same mix of comedy and drama, even some of the same actors -- both failed. In one, there was a gravitas to the characters' actions, in the others, there wasn’t.
Now, obviously, that doesn’t mean you can’t do a series about people not involved in altruistic pursuits -- but it still helps to give them greater -- and nobler -- goals. Consider TV’s Desperate Housewives, which began with a suicide and a whiz-dozer of a mystery that the heroines could investigate. MVP begins with…an accidental death. The closest thing to a mystery it offered was a key -- which then turns out not to be mysterious as it just opens a safe deposit box (and since the only beneficiary of this plot line is a character we aren’t meant to like anyway…)
And, of course, continuing on with the Desperate Housewives/Grey’s Anatomy comparison (that others have used) -- both those series are funny. I mean, very funny at times. Whereas MVP is essentially a drama. Okay, I’m maybe being a bit unfair, as MVP does try comic scenes -- but they tend to be broad, farcical scenes that tend to fall flat, as opposed to witty-funny.
So, after that long, rambling dissection of MVP, here’s a summation.
Create characters we care about and who care about others. No less than two plot lines in MVP seem to involve stalkers…but since we don’t particularly like those being stalked, it’s hard to care. Sure, everyone remembers JR from Dallas…but it was Bobby and Pam that gave it its heart (and, for that matter, the “villain you love to hate” seems to be passe, if you consider recent series like Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, Brothers & Sisters, etc.).
Give the characters goals, purpose, preferably with an altruistic bent -- make them proactive.
Hook us with something intriguing: a mystery, a puzzle. Something that can tease us along from week to week while we get to know and grow to like the characters. (Interestingly, two previous Canadian nighttime soaps -- Paradise Falls and Whistler -- began with murder mysteries…but in nether one was it a particularly intriguing or clever mystery, with clues that could be deciphered as the episodes go by).
And even if it’s a drama, remember humour. Not “comic relief” scenes, per se, necessarily. Not broad scenes where the actors can mug their way through not very amusing material. But witty humour, quirky humour, humour that can be unobtrusively threaded through even dramatic sequences. (I suppose you can argue that humour can also go hand-in-had with my point about characters who like each other -- characters who like each other can engage in badinage that characters who don’t, can’t).
What’s troubling, to me, is not so much that MVP may’ve missed the boat on some of these points. After all, the series’ makers are doing their own thing and may be doing the series they want to do -- so who cares what I think? No, what’s troubling is the reaction of critics and commentators. As mentioned, I’ve seen a number of people casually liken MVP to series like Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy -- both as a compliment, and as a criticism (because they don't actually like those shows). These are people who, in some cases, are being paid good money to analyse and render opinions of shows -- people who, as entertainment reporters, are literally paid to do nothing but watch TV and analyse it -- and none of them seem to have realized that MVP is, in most respects (themes, style, character) nothing like Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy.
And the fact that they don’t realize that says depressing volumes about the state of television analysis in Canada.
That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic
Feb. 25, 2008
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