Tuesday, December 06, 2005

House + Earl = engaging TV

Last week's January TV lineup announcement brought me happy news – no longer would the two shows I watch religiously be on at the same time. House will stay put in its Tuesday 9 p.m. slot on Fox, while My Name is Earl heads to Thursdays on NBC.

On the surface, the two shows have little in common. Cranky doctor solves medical mysteries in a one hour drama. Reformed criminal makes amends for past wrongs in a half hour sitcom. But both shows are focused on a narrowly defined premise, and each week the plot unfolds within that conceptual framework. To put it more simply, they follow a formula.

But formula implies precision. It implies predictability. It implies boring. And both shows have a talent for the unexpected within their framework. We might be able to detect Plot Detail A + Plot Detail B = Outcome X, but there are many variables along the way, and the occasional deviation from the formula puts our expectations at risk.

The first half of House's first season was more rigidly formulaic than it later became, but it hasn't always managed to shake the criticism despite shaking things up and moving away from the two wrongs eventually make a right diagnosis pattern. It's thrown in a couple of non-linear timelines, added more continuing character arcs, and produced more variations along the diagnostic path. Still, it has defined its concept more narrowly than “a group of doctors face medical and personal challenges in the ER.” It's a crime show without a crime, with perpetrators with no motives and victims with hidden ones.

On the other hand, just a few months into its first season, My Name is Earl not only displays an assured grasp of its characters and its comedic sensibility, it has managed to use its brilliant but potentially limiting concept in interesting ways. In the pilot episode, Earl wins the lottery, gets hit by a car, and is inspired by Carson Daly to try to turn his karma around by doing good deeds, so he compiles a list of all the bad things he's done in life. Every week, we see Earl make amends for another item on his list. The formula is that he tries to do a good deed for the person he wronged, some complicating factor makes the task more difficult than it appeared, but he finds a way to help in the end. The list assures a steady stream of plots for the next several years and beyond, since Earl has already added to it.

Writing a show with a narrow focus is in some ways a bolder creative choice than a show that offers more freedom. With Friends, you've got six characters hanging out – that leaves a lot of wiggle room, plot-wise. With Earl, you're focused on one main character doing one action each episode. Criticising House for its chosen scope seems as illuminating as criticising Lost for its implausibility, or Fear Factor for being sensational. That's the point. The basis for critique should be in judging how well a show accomplishes what it sets out to do, and whether it fits our idiosyncratic tastes or not.

There's a corny saying that happiness isn't a destination, it's a way of travelling. Well, the joy in these shows isn't the outcome – will House find the correct diagnosis? will Earl atone for a past wrong? - but in how they arrive at that outcome. The rich characters are as important as the plot. And within their chosen framework, both shows inject innovation in the details. Along with clever, playful language and characters with depth, the shows sustain audience interest with repeat doses of the unexpected. House's patients can die or lose their hands. Earl can fail to make up for ruining his dad's election and abandon his list when he realizes he's neglecting his brother. And sometimes, for a special treat - but not so often that the audience is jolted out of these self-contained worlds - the framework is bent almost beyond recognition and we get a “Three Stories” episode, that takes some of its power from toying with our expectations of the formula.

So you say formulaic, I say framework – let's call the whole thing off. It's semantics and personal taste. But “formula” is not a dirty word. Ask any mathematician ... it can even be beautiful in its elegance.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)