B movies are great. Awful effects, awful acting, awful plots. They are great because they try so hard to be good and fail on every level. It is different when a show or film actually has a chance to be good. Decent acting, reasonable plot, and then comes the wretched effect that causes you to change the channel. Good effects can help, sure, but bad effects? Well, sometimes they can be worse than nothing at all.
Recently I’ve been using Netflix instant view to catch up on shows that I’d intended to watch, but never found the time. The latest was the Dresden Files. It is film noir if you swap out the hard boiled detective with a wizard. Good plot, huh? Huh? Well, it is if you are a fantasy geek. Which I am. So I got onto it, and then I saw this…
It isn’t a BAD effect, I’ve seen worse, but it isn’t exactly good. Everything else on the show is average or slightly above, so seeing a mediocre effect like that drags the whole thing down. Special effects are tricky like that. If they are good enough, no one notices them. If they are bad enough, no one can ignore them. People think that special effects are like frosting on a cake, and to a degree they are. If your frosting it good enough, you can choke down sawdust. But at the same time, smear ketchup on a masterpiece and you won’t be catering any more birthday parties. And a big bowl of frosting with no cake is… well, it’s awesome, but it will never be anything more than a guilty pleasure. At the very least, if you are going to use special effects, be consistent. There had been no shortage of effects in the show before, but they had always been a glow here or a sparkle there. They were subtle, which is what low budget special effects are supposed to be. Getting a full CGI creature was a big mouthful of cheap frosting in an otherwise passable desert.
If that effect hadn’t been there, the show would have sunk into my memory without any glaring faults. I would have had time to mentally edit out the subpar portions, and ultimately I probably would have remembered the show fondly. No effect, no bad taste in my mouth. Instead, the so-so CGI sticks out like a big hairy exclamation point in my mind. The lesson here is to only use effects if you KNOW you can wow the audience, or at least escape their notice. If there is any doubt, leave it out. (Lessons are easier to remember if they rhyme.) Think back to every TV show that had special effects. I am willing to bet that 90% of them, with a few recent exceptions, were what you’d call “campy.” And again, campy is fine when it is campy all the way. Campy themes, campy acting, campy effects. You throw a serious bid for respectability in there and the whole thing takes a turn for the worst. When I think special effects driven movie, I think Jurassic Park, or Avatar. Not bad company to be in. When I think special effects driven show, I think I Dream of Jeanie and Bewitched. Enjoyable shows, sure, but not necessarily something you’d aspire to. Now, like every rule, there are exceptions. The X-Files used effects fairly well, and most of the Star Trek incarnations did a decent job of balancing their effects and writing, but they’ve each got their cringe worthy moments, too. Many if not all of those episodes could have benefitted if they had just decided to leave the effect out. Anything made since the premiere of Lost is exempt from this assessment… lousy JJ Abrams, screwing up my theories.
Dresden Files didn’t make it out of its first season, and it’s a pity, because at the very least it motivated me to seek out the novels. If they had left out the CGI rat-bat – which was supposed to be a werewolf, by the way – or maybe done some conventional effects, would the show have lasted? Maybe, maybe not. All I know is that, for me, it is much easier to forgive something good that wasn’t there than something bad that was.