Television (The Drug of the Nation)

In a change from our usual program of moaning about the flat, I’m instead going to do a little overview of all the new American TV that I’ve been watching over the past month, and how the various shows are shaping up. There will be spoilers, so consider yourself warned…

Studio 60 at the Sunset Strip

Sharp dialogue, great performances, one of the slickest and most well-crafted shows on the air, and I really wished it worked better than it did. Aaron Sorkin is trying to apply the same intellectual sheen and sense of over-arching message from The West Wing (which was, lest we forget, a show about running the USA) to a show about making a ‘Saturday Night Live’-style comedy programme. It really doesn’t feel like the situation has that much potential, and while the cast are fantastic, and it does possess some of the same fizz that the late lamented Sports Night holds (I discovered that show on ABC1, and I’m so glad I did…), but a sense of state-of-the-nation importance keeps hitting the show over the head. The thing that really doesn’t help is that what we’ve seen so far of the ‘show-with-the-show’ has varied from mildly amusing to painfully unfunny, and it’s being sold as a major, ground-breaking cultural institution. You can’t have debates about ‘what is funny?’ without some pretty killer material, otherwise the show starts falling apart and starts looking too much in love with intellectual people standing around being witty and intellectual to each other. The one-liners are fabulous. It’s brilliantly directed. If it gets more than thirteen episodes, I’ll be really surprised…

Heroes

This was a major surprise, as the first episode of this serialised, Robert Altman-esque superhero saga was a bit of a damp squib, with lacklustre pacing and only a few genuinely interesting characters. I can’t have been the only one hoping that Milo Ventimiglia’s dull character Peter Patrelli would actually buy the farm as a result of the first cliffhanger- but then, from episode 2, things suddenly started picking up, and I found myself saying “Oh my god… this is really cool!” on a regular basis. It’s getting away with keeping multiple plotlines bubbling without getting confused, and while the writing isn’t as good as it could be, it’s really capturing the joyous ‘anything can happen’ sense of a true comic book. It’s also giving some of the best cliffhangers that I’ve seen in ages, moments that almost make me want to stand up and give the show a standing ovation. As a result, I can forgive it some of its flaws, and the fact that not all the cast are up to scratch- for me, it’s playing like a compulsive version of one of the traditional DC Universe comic books, where the script isn’t always fantastic, but there’s such cool stuff and exciting storytelling going on that you don’t really care. It’s gone from a show that was only a mild curiosity to one of my most enjoyable watches of the new season so far, and with both a super-powered serial killer and a major, New York-destroying catastrophe to be prevented (which will either be the season climax, or happen just in time for Sweeps!), it looks like there’s lots of cool stuff to come. I just hope they can keep up the standard…

Jericho

Sometimes, mediocrity can be your friend. Jericho isn’t a fantastic series by any stretch of the imagination- it kind of plays like a nuclear flipside of Smallville, where instead of Kryptonite-freaks and adolescent angst, you’ve got small-town soap and a little thing called the collapse of civillisation. It’s good at approaching the practical considerations of survival (something which was very good about the first season of Lost, and which that show has eventually abandoned…), and it’s got a doozy of a running plotline, playing up the lack of information that the small Kansas town has about the rest of the world, and the mystery of exactly what enigmatic ‘ex-cop’ Lennie James is up to (I was hoping it’d turn out he was actually English- as the actor is, and his US accent is surprisingly ropey for him to get a running role on a show). There are all kinds of soapy plotlines to sink your teeth into- particularly the hesitant romance between the teen queen and the local geek- and the disaster movie shennanigans will get a little old (“Oh no! There’s a fire at the library!”), but it’s genial fun, with enough apocalyptic cool to counter the ‘spirit of smalltown America’ sentiment that washes through the rest of the show. Pity about the habit of slathering light pop-rock across virtually every scene, though…

Kidnapped

One of two shows all about a kidnap and its consequences, this is a pacey little thriller with a peachy cast (Jeremy Sisto, Delroy Lindo, Timothy Hutton) that’s since been given until episode 13 to wrap itself up. That’s probably a good thing, as while there’s been some good material, and Sisto makes an admirably shifty, hard-man lead, the whole kidnapping plotline doesn’t feel strong enough to carry the show very far. It’s well shot and excellently put together, and having to wrap up the story may well give it the urgency and shape that it needs at the moment.

Ugly Betty

You could view it as a cartoony TV version of The Devil Wears Prada, except this fluffy comedy is actually based on a Mexican Telenovella, and sets itself up as a skewed look at the world of fashion. It’s both shallower and yet more honest than Prada (which is fantastic, and yet is totally in love with the world it’s trying to skewer. It may want to say ‘the fashion world will destroy your soul and bankrupt your heart’, but what it actually says is ‘Look at these shoes! Aren’t they FABULOUS!’). It’s very silly, very one-dimensional, and yet what sells it is the central performance of America Ferrera as the ‘ugly’ girl from Queens who gets a job as the assistant to the editor of a high-level fashion magazine purely because he won’t want to sleep with her. Truth be told, Ferrera is far from ugly- even with the mouth braces she has to wear- but she is, at least, interesting and realistic looking as a woman, not the typical Hollywood ugly where a drop-dead gorgeous girl wears glasses just so she can take them off later to reveal her ‘true self’. She also manages to give a performance full of heart that’s genuinely touching and not just a play for the audience sympathies, which makes you almost forgive much of the cartoon bitchiness. I’m actually more interested in the daft running plotline involving the ex-Editor of the magazine who’s presumed dead, but is actually esconced in what looks like a top-secret tanning salon and is generally acting like a derranged supervillain. It’s the kind of gleeful nonsense Sunset Beach used to do effortlessly, and it may keep me watching for a while…

Boston Legal

Against my better judgement, I found myself addicted at one point to watching Ally McBeal- not because of Callista Stick Insect Flockheart (the woman who seems to have aged Harrison Ford twenty years), but the supporting characters who were engagingly kooky and much more interesting than the nominal heroine. Well, as a result of a friend’s recommendation, I tried out the first episode of the third season of this show from the writer of Ally McBeal (David E. Kelley)- actually a spin-off from his previous show The Practice- and I’m hooked. It’s a legal drama, but played mostly as a demented comedy with occasional attacks of seriousness, and while there’s plenty of playfulness in the dialogue and some great support performances, the thing that turns it into a work of surreal genius is the joint prescence of James Tiberius Kirk, and the man who had once sex with a wound in Rosanna Arquette’s leg during the Cronenberg film CRASH. The combination of James Spader and William Shatner should be one of those ‘matter and anti-matter’ moments that make the universe end, but it’s a weird, wonderful joy. Spader has a talent for oily, weird comedy, and Shatner is simply brilliant at taking his classic Trek image- an oversexed chubby egomaniac who’ll happily sleep with anything that moves- and playing up to it. It’s tremendous fun, and I’m going to stick with it…

Battlestar Galactica

It’s still the finest and most adult sci-fi show on the air, but the opening of the Third season does have me wondering about the show’s capacity for evolution. The ‘one year forward’ gambit at the end of Season Two was a brilliant move, and the resulting New Caprica storyline was some of the most gruelling and harrowing material they’ve ever done, but while they’re hitting some peaks, some weaknesses are showing through. The opening two-parter was almost two intense for comfort, while the manipulation involved in ‘rewinding’ back after the cliffhanger of ‘Occupation/Precipice’ was a little too much like Alias in its weaker moments. ‘Exodus Part 1’ suffered from being over-extended, and while ‘Exodus Part 2’ kicked seven shades of arse, I’m worried that we’re heading back towards a series reset. At the least, we need something major to happen in the ‘Search for Earth’ plotline, otherwise it’s in slight danger of turning into ‘Political Allegory of the Week’. It’s also a shame that we’ve returned to Starbuck being grim and maladjusted and angst-ridden, which seems in danger of repeating ground they’ve already covered in Season 2, and I’m not certain yet about the whole direction the plot is taking re: Baltar, Six, and particularly the original version of Boomer, who seems to have embraced her Cylon heritage way too much to be totally convincing. It’s very good, but the story manipulations are getting a little too obvious (even in ‘Collaboraters’, where it was fairly obvious how it was going to turn out), and it’s nowhere near as strong as the first seven episodes of Season Two, which frequently took my breath away at what they were actually able to pull off. I know the ratings are wobbling for the show as well, so I hope they can get it back on track, as while the standalone episodes are frequently weak, when it gets to the big stuff- like ‘Exodus Part 2’- it’s magnificent to watch.

Lost

Season One of Lost was a major treat for me, and the first time I discovered the joys of downloading. I actually got to see the pilot before it even aired on US TV- I’d heard enough to get me interested, and the first thing I thought was that this was the coolest thing I’d seen in ages. The second thing i thought was that there was no way in hell it’d ever be a success on US TV, because it was too good. History has proved me wrong, and while Season One had its ups and downs, it was overall a massive success that redefined what you could do with serialised drama, taking the things I’d liked about the first series of Alias (before the show got essentially demolished halfway through Season 2) and making them work. The trouble is, while Season One was a journey of exploration and discovery, the writers and producers seemed to get too convinced during Season Two that they knew what the formula of making a Lost episode was- when the joy of the first season was that there was no formula. You genuinely felt anyone could die at any moment- a tension that’s now almost entirely absent- and the show managed to balance characterisation, nuts-and-bolts survival adventure, and the weirder mythology of what was going on with the Island. It felt unpredictable, like anything could happen. Unfortunately, then the ‘Others’ entered the equation, and as soon as we got to Season Two, a sense of over-familiarity started coming into play, and a refusal to let anything shake up the status-quo too much. They also made the manipulative error of building up the emotional side of a character just to kill them off, something which was deeply annoying with Shannon who was just turning into a genuinely interesting character (and much more interesting than any of the Tailie survivors). We’ve now got a set-up where most of the plane crash survivors are living a bucolic, carefree life on a beach, and apparently not concerned or curious about the fact that the Island they live on is host to Polar Bears, smoke-monsters, and mysterious psychos who like to abduct and/or murder people.

We’ve got to Season 3, and while episode one was masterful, the best episode of Lost for ages, since then it’s been weak stuff, and the revelations about the Others have been a little uninspiring. After all the build-up, they’ve actually been revealled as whining hypocritical crybabies- when one of the Others is shot, after saying ‘We’re not the enemy- but if you shoot me- that’s what we’ll become’- there’s lots of anger, and cries of ‘they did this!’ and promises of revenge, seemingly forgetting the fact that when you sneak around playing mind-games, abducting and killing members of a group that you know is armed, it’s just possible you’re going to get shot. And if, as the Others turn out to, you don’t have the medical facilities to treat a gunshot wound, then maybe you shouldn’t be running around the jungles like you’re rehearsing for a part in Deliverance?!? Even the character of Fake Henry Gale (who is now called Ben, but I can’t help but think of as Fake Henry) was much more interesting last season- now, he’s turned into a traditional Machiavelian bad guy, and it’s hard not to notice that so much of Lost’s storytelling relies completely on people not asking perfectly sensible questions or being curious about anything. The Hatch implodes, the sky turns purple, and yet nobody turns up to investigate, even after the Hatch’s entrance smashes down out of the sky (and Charlie’s bizarre amnesia gets quietly forgotten). Even Hurley’s news that the only doctor on the Island has been abducted doesn’t seem to have caused that much of a fuss, and the writers have officially used the ‘character is led out into the jungle to have a randomly meaningful confrontation with something’ too many times. It just feels like the show is running in circles, desperately trying to keep the central mystery going for as long as possible, when it’s not actually that interesting anymore. The opening of Season 2 turned the show upside down, and those first three episodes still stand up really well- but there’s been far too many loose ends and red herrings- in Season One, most elements were paid off in one way or another, but there’s a whole thread of mysteries from season 2 that look likely to be forgotten or abandoned. Sometimes, it’s like the Producers are worrying too much about loading in detail for the Internet fans (particularly the ultraviolet Hatch Map- a fascinating piece of work that’s loaded with intriguing detail, and yet apart from the ‘?’ episode has had very little effect) and not enough about viewer satisfaction. It’s always possible that I may change my mind- but they’re going to have to pull off some seriously impressive stuff in the next couple of episodes if this whole ‘break for three months and run the rest of the season in February’ plotline is really going to work.

* * *

Whew. I may need to lie down briefly after all that…

7 thoughts on “Television (The Drug of the Nation)

  1. the writing [on Heroes] isn’t as good as it could be
    Actually, I suspect the writing on this show is exactly as good as it can be. It’s not a show that you watch for the quality of its parts.

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    • I like to think of myself as an optmist. Admittedly, I would be surprised if it suddenly improved massively- it’s going to remain soapy in certain respects, and hopefully they’ll avoid too much portentious pontificating from the Indian Dr.- although I’m sure he’ll be back into ‘important soliloquy’ mode once he regains his faith. For the moment, it looks like Heroes is going to be serving up enough nutty storytelling shenanigans to keep me happy- and I’ll happily put up with the bits that don’t come off for the ones that leave me amazed.

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      • Yeah, the lackluster writing isn’t a deal breaker for me either – I just don’t see that improving on it is a priority. I’m actually quite impressed at the juggling act that the show’s writers are managing. By keeping so many plotlines going simultaneously, by never letting up on the gas pedal, by shifting attention from one character to another, they turn a mass of mediocre parts into a pretty good whole. I’m enjoying it immensely, but also with some trepidation – it won’t take much for this house of cards to topple.
        hopefully they’ll avoid too much portentious pontificating from the Indian Dr
        From your lips to the writers’ ears…

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      • VM DVD
        I have seasons 1+2 and the currently aired episodes of VM season 3, if you want to borrow them.
        Or perhaps, I’ll just bring them on holiday for Christmas.
        Youichi.

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