Handmaid’s Tale, Fargo, Boardwalk Empire, Jack Ryan, The Expanse, WandaVision, Kim’s Convenience – I’ve spent the pandemic watching critical darlings of television’s second golden age. And I also watch Titans. As, in Teen Titans. Or, better yet, Teen Titans, Go! A junior justice league of heroic young sidekicks. It’s bad, folks. It’s the hour of the week I spend groaning at the screen.
24 premiered in November 2001, two months after the fall of the Twin Towers, a week after passage of the Patriot Act. The breathless, real-time story of a relentless intelligence agent was perfectly suited to its time. Jack Bauer, routinely relying on torture as a tactic of interrogation, was an avatar for our nation’s War on Terror.
As astutely as that show mirrored the zeitgeist, Titans proves tone deaf to it. Is this really the time to weaponize youthful vigilantes? I can hardly count the number of people these lionhearted celebutantes have killed in the course of season one.
But these characters must act against wholesome types long-defined in comics and other media. Apparently, they must act against logic and human motivation. Consider a silly (yet representative) example from “Hank and Dawn,” season one’s ninth episode. Dawn (Minka Kelly) rises in the middle of the night. She goes to the bathroom. And sits. On the edge of the tub.
Any number of things might rouse me from sleep. I can even think of various reasons to visit the bathroom. But to sit contemplatively (not to mention elegantly) on the edge of a tub figures in exactly no scenario I can imagine.
But if Dawn doesn’t sit on the edge of a moonlit tub, then she won’t discover pill bottles balanced on the sink. She won’t, therefore, decide to unleash seven years of Jujutsu on an abusive coach. She won’t conspire in the murder of a sex offender she’s never met. And she won’t consummate an act of revenge with a night of hot, tender sex.
There is, for my taste, way too much deus in this machina. Too many nonsensical things happen in Act I – not because they are true to character – but because they are necessary in Act III. (Die Hard, by the way, is the yardstick in this regard. Pretty much everything that happens in that movie is a function of both character and plot. Insert chef’s kiss here.)
And yet. If students I’ve taught worked their way onto the crew of Titans, I’d brag. I would openly boast of their success in the industry. I would feature their professional triumph in promotional materials. I would herald them as role models for current students. I would invite them to speak as featured alumni.
Why? So few scenes of the show pitch to the strike zone of creative storytelling.
When I watch Titans, I don’t think about the lighting, or the editing, or the audio mix. The composition of shots, the movement of cameras draw no attention to themselves as incompetent or unprofessional. A unionized crew of skilled specialists performs their duties and assembles a product that adequately satisfies a base of customers. Friday night audiences eat pizza and shout at the screen. Craftspersons earn paychecks and lines on their résumés. It’s okay that we can’t reconcile pride in yeoman service with aesthetic aspirations.