Change and Thrive: The Evolution of Red vs Blue

The idea of changing showrunners is usually enough to send ripples of terror through a series’ viewing audience, often with at least one reference to sharks. Very occasionally it can pull a failing series out of a spiral, at least for a while.


Conventional knowledge states that a storyteller should come in with a fixed idea of what they want to say, get it out there, and call it a day. That keeps the narrative focused in plot, pacing and themes, and lowers the possibility of things going straight off the rails. Obviously, that philosophy works best with finite narratives – put another way, Breaking Bad would’ve lost quite a bit of impact if, instead of ending when the plot called for it, popularity dictated that the show continue around…Walt’s secret twin brother, or something. Before, it was fairly easy to tell which was which – books and films have closed narratives, and TV has long running situational settings. The lines have grown blurrier and blurrier as strictly plotted shows like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones chart a clear(ish) beginning, middle, and end; and movie franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe propose an increasingly unlimited playground of plotlines.

And now, the majesty of TIME TRAVEL

Red vs Blue has aspects of those things, but is amorphous enough to stand just outside firm categorization. The show’s entering its third major shift, and it never fails to impress me how well it manages to intuit what it needs to keep from growing stagnant. It started out as bite-sized comedic scenarios with a core cast of characters (two teams in the middle of a box canyon, far busier bickering than trying to kill each other), woven very loosely into an overarching plot that needn’t have any particular tie to reason or dramatic heft. Five seasons of that came to an end, with the logic that the mythos was becoming too impenetrable for new viewers – somehow a goofy comedy show had almost two dozen major characters and almost nine hours of history. So they called it a day, ending on a surprisingly bittersweet note.

Except it was more of a hiatus than an end. A year later the RvB switched from a year-long release schedule to the summer season it currently occupies, and starting with the sixth season story arcs were written as movies rather than serial shorts (with director Burnie Burns still the sole writer), and broken up afterward for release. And it worked – to this day Reconstruction (s6) is a fan favorite, simultaneously introducing a much more threatening villain and pulling one of the smoothest, deftest retcons I’ve ever seen (eat your heart out, Crisis on Infinite Earths). The next year, Recreation (s7), smoothed the connection between sci-fi conspiracy and ‘lovable bickering idiots.’ And Revelation (s8)capped off the trilogy by introducing CG animator Monty Oum to the machinima-driven series.

To this day season 8 remains my favorite – the CGI gives small but effective touches of personality to characters previously characterized entirely by vocal performances (which are likewise top-level, with all the actors well settled into their roles), the action scenes are an effectively bombastic cap to three seasons of the Reds’ and Blues’ increasing competency, but are kept from overwhelming the plot by virtue of having only one person to make them; and the streamlined character-driven plot hits a series of important development milestones in various relationships by building off of the show’s history.

And now, Cool Freelancers Being Cool

Of course, there’s not a writer out there who’s perfectly adaptable to every situation out there. Perhaps you’ve noticed a pattern from my overly brief synopses of seven years of work: Burnie is excellently skilled at acerbic comedic dialogue, absurd humor, and retroactively unleashing great significance from seemingly unimportant facts (often ones from whole seasons ago, which Adventure Time went on to use to great effect). The trouble with that last one is that slow burn surprises like that require great familiarity with the characters – an unusual action from one of the Reds becomes significant because we’ve had hours and hours of just observing what ‘normal’ is.

That became something of a stumbling block for the show around seasons 9 and 10 (aka the “Project Freelancer Saga”). Those two split time between the modern adventures of the regular cast and flashbacks about the doomed military project that kicked the whole plot off. And while there was quite a bit of previously dropped info about the Project in previous seasons (mostly in the form of shellshocked former agents dropping like flies), the script quickly ran into two problems: there was a much bigger cast of characters the audience had little or no previous attachment to, and there was a much bigger CG department that could make a much greater volume of Cool Action Scenes. The latter depleted time that could be given developing the former (outside of the individual quirks of combat ability), and the result ended up very, very cool looking but often piecemeal where the unknown agents were concerned.

The show had so long relied on dialogue to convey 100% of meaning that hugely anticipated scenes became momentary flashes, the most infamous  being Washington’s madness – a subject of much deliberation contained within a single scene with no other on-screen addressing. While RvB’s great strength had often been in implying rather than either showing or telling, the new avenues of storytelling possibility meant that it was no longer always the best method (not to say season 10 managed no emotional weight – it comes with a hell of an emotional climax, a one-two punch of understated staging and dialogue that pays off what amounts to the show’s emotional backbone with pitch-perfect closure).

I’m not okay. Nobody is okay

Enter Miles Luna, who wrote a few scenes in season 10 and came on board as the show’s head writer for the 11th. In theory, it was something of a terrifying notion – RvB had succeeded under Burnie’s relatively singular creative guidance as both writer and director (excluding some guest directing here and there), and that much history ran the risk of melting down entirely once handed over to a new set of hands. It did no such thing. While different from Burnie’s, Miles’ writing style has proven (with the 11th season down and the 12th underway) to be the smoothing element the show needed – more openly emotional than Burnie’s style (where dialogue that deviated from ‘I would be totally okay if you assholes all died’ would be a great moment of intimacy) but no less true to the characters, it opened up avenues of development that could breathe fresh life into a plot left reeling by the finale of the Church arc. The tonal shift is something I’m still trying to place myself – gentler, perhaps, with a different interests in terms of character dynamics.

Bless you, Miles Luna, for letting the joke amongst jokes be a badass

Miles has great strength in playing common emotional scenarios – York’s logs and Wash’s friction with the Blues over Church’s abandonment particularly – with a grounded tone that doesn’t forsake the jokes for something overly maudlin. More specifically, his writing is able to write both long-running conflicts and ones that are contained within the season, offering catharsis without having to remember a decade of details (not that there isn’t a wonderfully fannish joy to be found in the latter). It knows when to settle but never gets stuck on itself (and it gave a most excellent spotlight to Donut, for which I am forever grateful). It looks like season 12 is experimenting again, bringing back the CG that was mostly absent in 11 for casual character moments rather than saving up for the big action scenes (which are sure to come). As long as the show’s willing to keep experimenting, and avoids deliberately face-kicking its roots (it’s a comfort to know Burnie’s around to keep an eye on things, even still), I’m pretty comfortably sure that I’ll be a fan for the foreseeable future.

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