Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Bland is Not Necessarily a Pejorative

I got into a little bit a of a debate with Denis McGrath (currently one of the best screenwriters in Canada) about the show The Listener. I couldn't disagree with most of what he said, but regarding the term "bland," which is what he saw The Listener as being, I had a different opinion.

Here is an edited version of my take on the subject.

* * *

Remember what ol' Bill Davis said about bland? It works. Nobody watches Eureka for the non-stop thrill ride.

In The Listener you got Toby, and his buddy Oz. They show up at a scene, something bad happened, and they deal with it. There is no overarching dark government conspiracy (remember the suck that sort of arc brought to Intelligence Season 2?), no ticking time bomb, and they're not trying to get your adrenaline pumping before every commercial break. That is, it's not meant to be a 24, or The Border.

The heart of the show is Toby, which includes his friendship with Oz (which includes the well written and set up buddy humour), his relationships with different women, and his discomfort and confusion about who he is, and who he should be.

Where I live, in the Middle East, there is already enough life and death, tension, and terror to go around. Watching The Listener made me miss Canada in a way that Flashpoint, Durham County, The Border, and The Guard don't. I felt that sense of ease, that sense of a place where life isn't always lived on the edge of a knife.

The only other Canadian shows that give me that feeling are Less Than Kind and maybe Corner Gas. (Little Mosque just reminds me of where I live right now.)

And that's not a knock against those other shows, especially Flashpoint and Durham County, because Hugh Dillon and tranquility just don't mix. Anything he is in is going to have more than a little bit of a hardcore edge.

But that's not to say that hardcore edginess is always preferable to bland, because it's not. In fact, most often it is the other way around.

Bland isn't necessarily a pejorative. I never listened to Disc Drive on CBC Radio 2 in order to rock out on the way home. For many, bland is preferred, bland is what is called for, bland is what is wanted.

Take Canadian food, for example. I'm always hearing it labeled as being "bland," but by Hey-zeus I prefer that food to anything else in the world. My in-laws are often won't to call my food bland, as they go about preparing dishes that often either give me heart burn, or are so filled with little inedibles like cardamon seeds, and cinnamon bark, that I spend more time sifting through my food to remove them, than I do actually eating or enjoying the food. They say it gives flavor, I say it's a nuisance. Give me my bland any day.

Now when you look at most any CBS procedural, there is more than a little bit of bland there. What distinguishes Numb3rs from Criminal Minds, Cold Case, NCIS, The Mentalist, the CSIs and Without a Trace? Two things - the style of the show, and the MacGuffin. Otherwise they all have an ensemble cast, they are all based around law enforcement, and they all maintain only a light serialization.

Remember the old dictum in television writing that every episode has to be the same, but different? CBS follows that, but applies it to entire shows and not just individual episodes of a show.

ABC does the same thing with it's bevy of reality shows, which are very bland, and very successful. Perhaps that is why the heavily serialized shows do well there. Some sort of counterbalance, perhaps?

I'd argue that NBC had, by far, the best shows on network television last year and this year. They were the funniest, most intriguing, most original, and usually the most exciting. Shows like Medium, Chuck, Life, Kings, 30 Rock, Heroes, The Office, and Friday Night Lights all were, or are, great shows. But they kept getting their butts handed to them by CBS every week.

About the only thing seemingly keeping NBC afloat is the stellar quality of the shows coming out of the USA Network (Monk, Burn Notice, Royal Pains, In Plain Sight, Psych), which is NBC's wholly owned basic cable subsidiary. The reason why the USA Network is successful in this regard, is that they have taken the bland dictum to heart. All their shows are light dramedies, with large elements of humor, quirky protagonists, and light serialization. In a word, they are CBS, but with a better sense of humour.

I liked The Listener from episode one. I felt it was a pretty good show, that got better as the season progressed, and by the end of the season, it felt like the show started to really gel. It never became an action packed thrill ride, and the progression of the storyline was miles away from Damages. So yes, it could seem bland, at first. But it depends on how you look at it.

I saw the show as comforting. It held my interest, had some funny moments, and mostly ended up being an hour well spent with my wife. Bland was what we wanted, bland was what we needed, and bland let us relax after a stressful day when our kids were finally asleep.

Which is why I say that bland is not necessarily a pejorative.


  1. You live in the Middle East and prefer Canadian Food??? What the fuck????

  2. Sorry, Ah pois, to have upset you enough to prompt six question marks and an expletive.

    But I do have to thank you, because you have inspired tonight's post.