Deus Ex Machina


If you are sufficiently bored or lonely or paid to write about television, you’ve encountered the debate over when the era of “prestige TV”, the period of American television where it was able to compete with — and arguably surpass — film as an art form, truly began. Some say it was The Sopranos, some say Homicide: Life On the Street, some have increasingly obscure and incorrect answers.

Whichever one you side with, you’re wrong. The first prestige television program aired on August 26th, 1939 on WNBC in New York: it was the Cincinnati Reds vs. the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was the first (broadcast) episode of a continuing series that we, our parents, and grandparents have been enjoying ever since.

What most of us actually love about baseball is the same thing we love about our favorite TV shows. A ton of money is spent on the spectacle. It has characters we love to follow and root for. Many of us have our own personal villains (which are some people’s heroes, a fun and interesting wrinkle).

There’s also the people who don’t care about your show at all, who make incredibly clever and definitely funny jokes about how you’re just watching “a buncha guys hitting a ball with a stick” (I’m laughing just typing it out). This is just a different version of the people who call Game of Thrones “that dragon show” or Big Little Lies “the sad white lady show”. Sure, they are those things if you don’t feel like putting any mental effort into understanding why people like it.

There was a moment in last night’s NLDS Game 5 between the Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs that bothered a lot of people. Well, there were a lot of those moments, but one stuck with me in particular. In the bottom of the 8th inning, Willson Contreras threw behind Jose Lobaton who, after being called safe, video review found that his foot had momentarily came a couple inches off the bag while Anthony Rizzo still had the tag on. So he was out.

Now, according to the rulebook, Lobaton was out. His foot came off, he was being tagged, he’s out. Saying that this makes video review a bad part of the game is fatuous; 90% of the time a replay review simply enforces the reality of what happened, and no one can possibly have any problem with it. And there’s no way, with the high-definition super slow-motion cameras we have, that we could ever go back to just being ok with an obvious error.

But then why does it feel so unfair?

I came to the realization that, to the average fan, it felt like bad writing on one of our favorite shows. The plotline of that game was propelled in a distinct direction: The Nationals had runners on in a high-pressure situation, Wade Davis was struggling, and it was down to him and Trea Turner. But then all of a sudden it wasn’t. And it wasn’t a clear, obvious pick off, it was a decision that came from a stranger in a different city that (virtually) decided how our episode would end. It kinda felt like a deus ex machina.

It’s probably not exactly that. But think of any time you’ve been pissed off by lazy writing on one of your shows. Was [spoiler] Matthew’s death in Downton Abbey sudden, out of nowhere, and seemingly pointless? Did the answer to how Sherlock [spoiler] faked his death piss you off (only to be compounded by Moffat making fun of you for wanting him to do his job?)? That all kinda feels like how you felt after such an exciting inning was ended by a disembodied decision from the ether, right?

In some ways, this is more frustrating because there are no writers or departing actors to point the finger at for screwing up. No one screwed up (except, perhaps, Jose Lobaton because what are you doing you know the Cubs throw behind runners all the time and there was a guy ahead of you on second and why did you slide feet first). We’re just left to feel unfulfilled, and not exactly understand why.

Maybe now you understand why a little bit better.

So if you were upset, don’t let the technocratic scolds make you feel like a dummy. Even if what happened was technically just, it definitely lacked poetic justice. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with expecting that out of your favorite show, even if it’s unrealistic.