Monday, October 18, 2010

An Open Letter to The Creators of Haven

For those not paying attention, the Friday before last saw the season finale of Haven, a SyFy show based on The Colorado Kid, a novella by Stephen King. I'm still a bit surprised by the King connection, because it's more loosely based on that property than The Lawnmower Man was, and Mr. King sued to make sure he wasn't credited with inspiring that film. In fact, after sitting through the entire first season of Haven, I'm convinced that SyFy found out they owned the rights to The Colorado Kid for some reason, and then shoehorned in some character names from that book onto a pre-existing spec script. There's really no other way to explain it. The Colorado Kid is a short mystery with no solution, a weird story two reporters in a small Maine town tell to a younger reporter, about a dead body found on a lake shore in town. Every clue to the man's identity and reason for being in town, including how and why he died, contradicted every other bit of evidence. It was intentionally left unsolvable; the point was to give you just enough information to think there might be an answer, but not enough to ever find one. The SyFy show Haven is about an FBI agent in a small town where everyone seems to be hiding some weird, vaguely defined supernatural power, like weather control, pyrokinesis or shapeshifting.

But, I've reached the point in my life where I don't care about fidelity to the source material, so long as the finished product stands on it's own. Haven bears little relation to The Colorado Kid, but that's fine; the book is still there on my shelf if I ever want to revisit it. A crappy or unfaithful adaptation does not negate the existence of the original. So I watched Haven, and it never bothered me that the show was such a mismatch with the source material. What bothered me was the often horrendous writing and acting on the show. It eventually got better, if only marginally, by the latter half of the season, but it still left a lot of room for improvement. It may improve greatly in it's second season, or it may not, but you can rest assured that I'll probably watch every minute of it. With SyFy recently announcing that Haven will indeed have a second season, I'd like to provide the producers with some free, unsolicited advice that would, if not help the show, at least help my enjoyment of it.

First off, you need to establish a few more secondary characters. Right now you have 3 or 4 characters who show up in each episode, and maybe 4 more that show up every now and again. You need to increase that number a little. I'm not talking about giving large chunks of the show to new characters, I'm talking about building on the ones you've already introduced. This is supposed to be a very small, slightly isolated community, so after awhile we should be seeing some recurring faces. And while we're on the subject, stop making the weekly threat a brand new character that we've never seen before, and never see again. With such a small community you're soon going to run into the problem that Murder, She Wrote had. By the end of that series there had been 800 murders in a town of 3000. At that point if you lived in Cabot Cove you were either a murderer, a victim, or a cop. Or a writer who was always in the process of writing a book that was suspiciously similar to the murder. The best place you could have done this was in the midseason episode where it turned out the proprietor of a local hotel, and a very well known man in Haven, was a shapeshifter who had taken the identity from a dead man decades earlier. This was a huge shock to the characters, but we were shown that he was a shapeshifter pretty much the moment he was introduced. If this character had been around in earlier episodes, even if he didn't have a speaking role, the impact of the episode would have been magnified a hundredfold.

Next, take a little time and actually think about the supernatural threats in each episode. Topics like; How does this tie in with the overall theme of the episode? Why is this happening? How is this happening? Does this make any sense? I can't stress this last one enough; you need to make sure the supernatural threat being faced is at least logically consistent within the confines of the show. This shouldn't be that hard, because as show concepts go, 'weird shit happens' is remarkably flexible. For example, the episode where the guy who eats when angry, and inadvertantly poisons every other food item made with ingredients that came from the same place not only made no logical sense, but is very hard to visualize or explain. I'm still not sure how that one worked, and like most mysteries on the show you pretty much sweep them under the rug once they've been solved. Or the episode where that one lady has one night stands and then has a baby in the morning, while the father ages rapidly and dies of old age just as the baby is being born. The fact that a main character survived this isn't a surprise; I don't think anyone expected you to kill someone who's name is in the opening credits so early in the show's run, but your reasoning that he survived because he was outside of the building and not in close proximity to the child made no sense. What about the earlier victim who wasn't even within city limits? It's these little things you should think of before your show goes before the camera.

Now, it's not all doom and gloom. The show did get better, especially in the last quarter of the season. While never great, the show did feel like it was starting to get in gear, and all the disparate pieces were in the process of clicking. You took a risk introducing an overarching plot in the first episode, and then largely ignoring it for the remainder of the season, only to spring it on the audience in the last few minutes of the final episode. I think it worked, though, because it gave the sense that there might be a method to the madness(and frankly, I was starting to wonder what the point of it all was, because 'The Troubles' was always poorly defined as a reason for the overall weirdness of the town). But here's where things get tricky: the temptation next season is going to be a reversal back into episodic monster of the week episodes so you don't alienate new viewers. This is fine, to a point. Monster of the Week episodes are fun, but time needs to be given to advancing the master plot. You can't do it all at once, because then you'll have shot your load and there's nowhere to go. You can't parcel it out as slowly as you did in season one, because then people will stop caring. Fast. Following my first piece of advice by introducing new recurring characters will help with this. Right now the focus is solely on the two leads, and their respective mysteries can only be teased out for so long before it becomes annoying. Having a larger stable of characters and more involved storylines for the weekly threats will make it possible to advance the master plot without coming to a dead end. Right now there are a few thousand residents of Haven, and each of them has a story. Instead of treating each one as it's own individual story, start weaving them into one large whole.

So good luck when you return in the Spring, Haven. I'll be watching and rooting for you. And if you need a creative consultant, I work cheap.


Rik Tod said...

I never made it past the first episode of Haven. Just really didn't interest me at all.

The downside is that it also made me not want to read the King book. Now, I have not read a Stephen King book since Hearts in Atlantis over 10 years ago (I was batting 1.000 up to that point on reading him, but he just started to lose me). I had been thinking about going back and picking up where I left off, but watching the first episode of Haven made me change my mind.

But, I do respect your take on everything, and you have pretty much convinced me that perhaps I should check out The Colorado Kid eventually after all.

As for Haven, I am going to respect your opinion on that one as well, but in the opposite way. I just don't feel like launching into a series that is only going to get marginally better, and then leave a viewer frustrated that none of it makes sense.

Look, you could say that for much of the series that Lost didn't make a lick of sense either, but they somehow tied it all together... I guess. The difference was that it was the style, direction, writing and acting that held you together until that finale, which many loved, but by which I was annoyed. (Probably because it went exactly where I thought it was going to be from the start. I was hoping for a less theologically sappy and sloppy closure.)

The Working Dead said...

It would not be my intent to get you to watch Haven. At it's best it was still very mediocre. I'll probably watch next season as well, but there isn't really any reason to go back to Haven if you hadn't been watching already. The Colorado Kid, however, is a great read, and pretty short. You should be able to finish it in an empty afternoon. Be be warned that it really is the epitome of King's tendency to not explain why things happen or where they come from.

Also, I'd suggest picking up Under The Dome. It rehashes a lot of his themes, but it also comes across as a distillation of all of those themes; a very direct, quick moving attack. The ending left a bit to be desired, but that could be said about most of his books.

And Lost. I'll disagree with you a bit, because I still liked the ending. But this would take up an entire conversation, so we'll leave it at that for now.