Thursday, November 14, 2013

Week 22 of "My 25 Favourite Episodes of TV"

Swap out week! Yes, I ditched "How I Met Your Mother's" "Slap Bet" (and even managed to take a swing at in this week's post, always a good sign for anything I write) and substituted this episode, which like a few others on this list, is one no one has ever heard of. They tend to be the ones I like best...maybe this project should have been "25 Most Obscure Episodes of TV That I Love, Now Shut Up". But hey, that's the kind of ridiculous 20/20 hindsight that really powers today's entry.

Another thing: I try to include photos in all of these posts, but this is one I had trouble with. According to my Google image search, there are about two still images of this episode on the entire internet. You'd also be surprised to hear that ten year old posts from ABC's press site don't hold up so much anymore. So enjoy this monochromatic 2,000+ word slog.

AFTER THE BREAK: I push for a classic sitcom character to go ghost hunting.




"It weighed the same in death as it did in life. No spirit left his body."

How much patience do you give a new television show?

It's a question that network executives seem to struggle with all the time. Nobody's particularly interested in charity cases, but sometimes it seems entire networks are made up of nothing but. Fox, for example, is stuck with a Tuesday night comedy block whose ratings are so anemic that they just gave a back nine order to alleged comedy "Dads," a show averaging less than four million viewers a week. Kevin Reilly has insisted we stick with it in the hopes it will get better (seriously, he's only hoping, he doesn't know much further than we do), but three torturous episodes were all I could take. And the few stubborn critics on my Twitter feed who are sticking it out don't seem all that enthused yet.

Now what if I told you that six months from now, "Dads" would be one of the most beloved shows on TV? I'm not saying it would be the #1 show, but it would be a fairly popular show - something to the effect of the slow build "The Big Bang Theory" had in its first few seasons. What would cause that to happen? Well give its current state, the show would need to undergo a fairly dramatic overhaul - like ditching all of its current characters, plots, and giving Brenda Song back to "Scandal". That seems unlikely, though, so perhaps they could introduce a Poochie-esque character that America could fall in love with. Hey, it's happened before. "Family Matters" aired 11 episodes before introducing Steve Urkel, and suddenly it was decided the show was actually about...the neighbour. Sure, why not? In fact, we'll retroactively insert him into previous cold opens for syndication. Boom. Problem solved. The show is a huge hit.

Now I don't know what the ratings for "Family Matters" were like in those first 11 episodes, but let's say hypothetically they were bad. Dismal. Worthy of cancellation. And ABC pulled the plug sometime before episode 12 introduced us to Stefan Urquelle. The amount of money all and sundry would have been giving up would be enormous, nine seasons worth of profits in first run broadcasts and decades of royalties from syndicated airings. We're talking the television production equivalent of Don Draper blowing the Hershey account for SC&P.

Which, strangely, enough, brings me to a fun, bizarre, dark, fun, creepy, wacky, fun show that ABC was nice enough to put on the air for six Monday nights in the winter of 2003: "Miracles". (Look, they would have loved to have shown more, but "Living with Michael Jackson" doesn't rerun itself, you know.)

So there's this guy named Paul, and he investigates modern miracles for the Catholic church. And he's feeling pretty down because every time someone thinks they've seen a miracle, it turns out that there's a perfectly normal explanation. All those bodies in the graveyard aren't perfectly preserved saints! They've just been soaking in nutritious apricot preservatives for 140 years. Better luck next time, Father.

Feeling lost - that "maybe we're on our own down here" - Paul takes some time off, when his mentor calls him up asking to look into a boy in a small Arizona town who is supposedly able to heal people with the power of hugs ("Miracles" was the most feel good show on TV, except for all the times when it absolutely wasn't).And it's true, this kid can heal people - at his own expense. Every time he hopes someone feels better soon, he takes times off his own life. And when a distracted Paul drives his car in the path of an oncoming train, Tommy dies saving his life. Paul sees his blood form into the words "God is Now Here," and finally, he's seen a miracle.

Paul takes his findings back to the church, but he doesn't have any proof, so nothing happens. Paul quits, finds out his dear Poppi never called him about any kid in Arizona, and is approached by a mysterious man named Alva Keel to team up and fight ghostly, supernatural devil crime.

Which leads me to my thesis: do you know how popular "Miracles" would have been if Paul and Keel had to help Steve Urkel get ghosts out of the Winslow's house?!?!

Okay fine, not really. (But come on, ABC owned the rights to all those characters, no? And we already have that suggests what Urkel would have looked like in this amazing crossover.)

There are only 13 episodes of "Miracles," and I've marathoned my way through them a few times in the last 10 years. And something that always strikes me about it is how lopsided the show's general setting tends to be. In the first six episodes, Paul, Keel, and third musketeer Evelyn tended to stay in the greater Boston area where their ghost busting organization "Sodalitas Quaerito" is headquartered. Episode two, "The Friendly Skies" takes place at Boston's Logan Airport. "The Patient" is also Boston set, and no one seems to travel too far outside the Northeast in "Little Miss Lost". There's a slight detour in Michigan for "The Bone Scatterer," before we're back in Massachusetts and New York state for "Hand of God," the last episode to air before ABC cancelled the show.

And it's such a shame that just as it was taken off the air, a switch flipped and "Miracles" became something of a more rural, or perhaps folksy, show. It starts in "You Are My Sunshine," when Paul's ex-girlfriend (Anna Gunn!) lives in a creepy house that turns Paul into a jealous psychopath, and continues with episodes like "Mother's Daughter," set heavily in Pennsylvania's Amish country, and "Saint Debbie," which while not technically rural, is set in a small town and decidedly less urban than the six aired episodes.

But it's "The Battle at Shadow Ridge," the show's eighth episode, where "Miracles" starts to feel like the kind of show that would have played in Peoria. It was the sixth produced episode, and had ABC aired the episodes in production order rather than shuffle them the way they did (third episode "The Friendly Skies" became the second, while actual second episode "The Ghost" fell down to number 11), the audience still might have been gone by the time this one aired. Maybe I just so love the episode's unapologetic strangeness and goofiness, but it does strike me as odd that this wasn't an episode where both the producers and the network said, "We need to air this very quickly - the audience needs to see that this isn't just a show about flashes of scary faces and demons possessing the handicapped."

It's not that the early episodes contain no positivity - despite its scenes of demons possessing the handicapped, "The Patient" is an hour in which it's made very clear to Paul that despite the overwhelming darkness he's facing, there is good on "the other side". But the revelation that Raina Bauer had been dead the entire episode is just creepy and unsettling enough that the final thought, as it were, doesn't land as well as maybe it should. It ultimately leaves Paul with questions in a way that "The Battle at Shadow Ridge" provides answers and puts issues to bed. It tells a very uplifting, fairly universal story about someone who didn't get to say goodbye to the people he loved the most, and while ghosts are also creepy and unsettling, we're clued into what's really going on, and the fact that this ghost means no harm, far sooner than with Raina. Henry Tucker, Paul and Keel, and we the viewers are always on the same, wet, see-through page throughout, and while I would never say "The Patient" pulled the rug out from under the viewers (a metaphor I'd reserve for far worse shows like the constant cock-teasing on "How I Met Your Mother"), episodes in which a piece of information revealed at the very end will change the way I watch the episode a second time through are never my favourite.

(This probably makes it sound like I would hate the "Lost" pilot on a rewatch solely because I know how the series ends, but that's not what I mean - I'm talking about something like the season four finale of "Breaking Bad," a thrilling exciting episode the first time that will now distract me in future viewings all because that one final shot of the Lily of the Valley plant in Walt's backyard has me trying to piece together how he managed to get it to Brock, especially considering "Breaking Bad" was a show that had always previously shown us how Walt put a plan together, even if it failed miserably. Also,it.)

"The Battle at Shadow Ridge" is also, without question, the funniest outing of a show that really isn't comedic. Perhaps it's due to the sheer size of the episode's guest cast, each with their own bizarre ghost lights encounter in Shadow Valley, that odds were at least enough of the characters would hit. But I don't think there's a single one of them that doesn't work, from the slightly douchey ATV couple in the woods, the Circle Mart guy who knows the paranormal drill so well by now, and of course the Jacobson kids and their Virginia accents. You would probably be hard pressed not to identify with or recognize someone, anyone, in this episode, even if it's the impatient file clerk who makes a point of telling Paul and Keel that she won't be helping them go through records. When the writers said that they always intended the supernatural stories to play against the mundane backdrop of everyday life to connect with the audience more, this is the kind of episode where I think it really translated from page to screen in the way they intended for the version of the show that 15 million people would have watched every week.

Do I blame the creative team behind "Miracles," including series creator and one of my favourite Twitter follows Richard Hatem, for what in retrospect seems like a bizarre way to arrange the show? Not necessarily, thought it's sort of a half and half split between "not knowing who was really behind those decisions at the time" and "there has been acknowledgement that ABC did shuffle some episodes around and joking or not, the serialization needed to be reworked slightly." Such a joke came from executive producer David Greenwalt in the DVD commentary for "The Friendly Skies," which as previously mentioned, bumped the second episode down to 11th in the air order. This necessitated moving a good deal of the intro of "The Ghost" to "The Friendly Skies," and Greenwalt claimed it "screwed up all [their] plans to correctly serialize the series". So with any show, there were network notes and decisions were made that maybe weren't exactly what the creative team wanted.

And of course, it's also wrong for me to assume that episodes were produced in the order they were intended to air. Just because "The Battle at Shadow Ridge" has the production number of 106 doesn't necessarily mean Hatem and co. planned for that episode to air sixth. And really, "The Battle at Shadow Ridge" could have aired fairly early in the run of the show, provided it was more clearly established up front that the new job Paul was taking would require a good deal of travel (obviously he knew he was getting in to some freaky shit, but Michigan?!). I can see why more of the "on the road" episodes might have been saved for later if the writers assumed Keel might put off the audience had he immediately begun dragging Paul across the country busting ghosts.

But man, I wish the ABC audience had gotten a chance to see this one. In broadcast order, "The Battle at Shadow" ridge is conveniently positioned right after what turned out to be the only mythology arc "Miracles" got to do, where Paul discovers that Keel had been keeping information from him regarding his mysterious connection to the six people who saw "God is Nowhere" in their blood (I call it an arc only because the anger and tension brought out in him by Anna Gunn's haunted house of alleged infidelity in "You Are My Sunshine" does draw on what he feels is Keel's dishonesty from the previous episode). And considering the "Evelyn plans her son's birthday party" scenes were entirely cut for time, I can't imagine why it would be a problem to air this one third or fourth.

But at least it exists. As do 12 other episodes of this wonderful show, and sometimes that feels like the real miracle. I don't necessarily think airing this one episode would have caused the ratings to skyrocket in the following weeks, but I think it's a much more representative episode of what "Miracles" eventually became and would have continued to be in subsequent seasons. With a strong, relatable story about human connection and an even more relatable examination of casual American spiritualism, it's one of my biggest disappointments in all of television that ABC turned out the lights before the stars of "The Battle at Shadow Ridge" got to tell us about the night they each saw them.

NEXT WEEK: I made you cry about Edna Krabappel. Prepare for more tears over a Matt Groening cartoon.

P.S. Did I do this? (Yes)
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