TV Eye

Okay, this is the beginning of a rough end-of-year round up. I’m not dealing with Torchwood as I’m lagging behind a couple of episodes (not that I’m too upset about that), but otherwise this is where most of my American TV viewing has got to. Mucho spoilers (and a rather lengthy Galactica talk) follow…

DEXTER

A fun discovery, this is a seriously offbeat mixture of black comedy, psychological horror and detective story. It’s the tale of Dexter Morgan (Six Feet Under’s Michael C. Hall), a genuine serial killer who’s been trained by his late cop foster-father (the always brilliant James Remar, who appears regularly in flashback) to channel his urge to kill into hunting down ‘bad people’ the system is unable to punish. Following a strict code, Dexter spends his nights as a gruesome vigilante, and his days as a Police Forensic blood-spatter expert, meaning there’s plenty of cross-over between his two lives- especially when a new killer with a grisly M.O. arrives in town. As well as being a thriller, it’s a strange exploration of the human condition, as Dexter has been taught to pretend to be ‘normal’, but tries to relate to the people around him who he doesn’t really understand- particularly in his relationship with his girlfriend Rita (Julie Benz, previously known as Darla from Buffy and Angel). The show is a little uneven at times- the episodes directed by Michael Cuesta (L.I.E., Twelve and Holding) are far superior to the others, the script’s habit of wrapping up most episodes with a meaningful monologue frequently feels dangerously pat, and I was able to spot one major twist almost two episodes before it happened (Rare for me- I’m normally as guillable as they come when twists arrive)- but there’s a cast of interesting, three-dimensional characters with many facets, plenty of jet-black humour, and some fantastic performances. Hall is outstanding as Dexter, managing to keep Dexter likable yet convincingly sociopathic and not turning him into a cartoon, while Jennifer Carpenter is brilliant as his foul-mouthed foster-sister. It’s got a second season, and I’ll be very interested to see where it goes…

HEROES

Fun. That’s the one word which comes to mind whenever I think of Heroes- it’s not the best show on TV at the moment, but it is one of the most deleriously enjoyable, and the final two episodes of the Winter season- ‘Six Months Ago’ and ‘Fall Out’- simply confirmed it. What’s also been interesting is seeing that the writers seem to have learnt lessons from Lost, particularly when it came to a Flashback episode. Six Months Ago did lots of things that The Other 48 Days in Lost season 2 did, but where the Lost episode actually diminished what had come before (the Tailies’ experiences turned out to be much less scary than expected), Heroes managed to fill in gaps and enhance what we’ve already seen without turning into filler. Sylar is both scary and a little cheesy in person, although the combined Clark Kent/Watchmen reference is fun, along with the fact that Nikki the split-personality stripper seems to be a homage to Crazy Jane from Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol (although Jane had over 60 seperate personalities to deal with). Plus, on top of all this, Hiro got his own Gwen Stacy-style tragic love story, a storyline that was pulled off magnificently, and it all fed into episode 11, which turned out to be dangerously close to the best episode yet. It was predictable that Sylar would get out of his prison soon- I just wasn’t expecting it to be before the end of the episode, and the rest of the 45 minutes was crammed to bursting with ‘Oh my Gahhhd’ moments, culminating in the Hatian revealling that he’s not exactly following the same rulebook as his employer, and Peter finding out that he’s scheduled to go nuclear. Someone should show this episode to the Lost producers- as while the end of their mini-season was pretty good, this is how you round off a storyline and keep people begging for more without simply hacking an obvious two-parter in half. It’s back in February, and I can’t wait…

UGLY BETTY

This daft souffle of a show has now cemented my enjoyment by throwing in one of those immensely frustrating Unrequited Love plotlines that you know are going to be spun out to a ridiculous degree (and probably get a tragic ending), and yet can’t help falling for. They’ve drafted in Christopher Gorham (from Jake X and Popular) to be the potential love interest for America Ferrera’s endearingly goofy Betty Suarez, and so far they’re generating the kind of onscreen chemistry that most romantic movies would kill for. I am, I will freely admit, a gigantic softie at heart, and Ugly Betty is turning out to be the TV equivalent of a comfortable teddy bear, with the advantage that it’s also fast, frothy and packed full of enjoyably OTT performances. I can even forgive it the moments of howling sentiment- it’s really that much fun.

JERICHO

So, the first phase of Jericho comes to an end- and it’s still managing to be fun, despite its determination to use as many predictable plot devices as possible. The people of Jericho have now foolishly voted out cuddly, fatherly Mayor Green in favour of the hilariously antagonistic Gray Anderson (whose role on the show seems to be to suspect and disagree with everyone, no matter what they’re suggesting), meaning that naturally the town will heading for disaster by the end of Season 1. What’s more interesting than the cheesy plotting and the god-awful MOR soundtrack is the way that Jericho portrays the Government- the ‘Ravenwood’ mercenaries were clearly marked up as Government sponsored bad guys (they may be rogue, but the Government still foots the responsibility bill), while Gray is fully painted as a Dubya-style opportunist using the politics of fear to get himself into power. Echoes of this kind of thing have turned up in Heroes and elsewhere, but it’s interesting seeing these kinds of attitudes to Government ending up in a show as middle-of-the-road and cheesy as Jericho. The big ‘what’s the mystery?’ plotline is still bubbling away, and it’s fun enough to keep me watching, without being remarkable enough to actually make me care.

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA

It’s like standing at the quayside, and watching a boat that you thought was firmly tied to its mooring drift further and further out into the water. Okay, the crew might get their act together in time to prevent the ship from tumbling over the waterfall that’s a little way off, but right now they don’t seem to be in a tremendous hurry…

I have a huge amount of respect for what Ronald D. Moore and his team are trying to do with Battlestar Galactica. The fact that they’ve made me care about a remake of a creaky old late Seventies Star Wars rip-off is enough of an acheivement- the fact that both Galactica and Doctor Who have come back, and that I’m enjoying Galactica more, is nothing short of head-spinning. When it’s been on form, Galactica has been some of the finest TV drama that I’ve seen, and has certainly done stuff and gone places that no SF tv show has even dared. Unfortunately, it’s looking ever more like something is very wrong, and despite the highs we’ve seen so far in Season 3, I’ve got the worrying feeling that the damage may be irreperable.

It’s worth saying at this point that while Galactica has stumbled badly since the second half of Season 2, it wasn’t perfect before hand. The first season alternated between fantastic episodes and scripts which could politely be called ‘filler’ (I can’t actually make it through ‘Litmus’ anymore) as well as proving firmly that Galactica simply can’t do comedy (Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down). When it was good, it was fantastic- and when it wasn’t, you’d drum your fingers waiting for something significant to happen. It’s only natural for a series to have ups and downs, but after the amazing peak of episodes 1-7 of the second season, which was some of the most jaw-dropping and compulsive episodic television I’ve seen, the show feels like it’s beginning to unravel, and what was previously brutally convincing is in danger of turning into a brutal, dystopian version of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Episode 11, The Eye of Jupiter, has simply sealed the deal for me- and while it features some great moments, it also has the suspicious feeling of a ‘Now That’s What I Call Galactica’ compilation, with a whole selections of moments from other episodes replayed to lesser effect. We’ve got the coincidental discovery of a place of religious importance to the Twelve Colonies. We’ve got Starbuck being shot down, and a debate about whether she should be rescued. We’ve got a group of people stuck on a planet with the Cylons closing in, and no clue as to whether they’ll be rescued. We’ve got a maguffin that might just point the way to Earth. We’ve got a major stand-off which Adama may be willing to break through extreme measures. It’s all very familiar, and cutting together multiple scenes beuilding to a cliffhanger doesn’t automatically create suspense- especially if, as in this situation, it’s very unlikely Adama is going to press the button and nuke the planet. With last year’s very similar cliffhanger in Pegasus, there was a multitude of possibilities- all of them bad. Here, it’s almost a repeat of the situation with the Virus in Torn/A Measure of Salvation, by setting up a major possibility when it’s blindingly obvious Adama’s projected Nuke attack isn’t going to happen.

There’s also a sense of drift in the way that the show is handling its running plotlines- and the writers’ habit of making up the ‘overarching story’ as they go is starting to show through in a big way. While the 1st season dipped into each story thread at least once per episode, major plotlines are now being dropped at a rate of knots, or being dealt with in the most perfunctory manner. Sometimes, as with the ‘Fat Lee’ issue of Apollo’s massive weight gain in the ‘year out’, it’s simply ignored after a couple of episodes, but it’s also relating to the larger story. In ‘The Eye of Jupiter’, Helo and Athena/Sharon finally discover their half Cylon/half human daughter is still alive, and it’s virtually thrown away in one scene, in favour of more focus on the tiresome Apollo/Starbuck angle. Even worse is the handling of Boomer- she was one of the regulars, someone we followed all the way through seventeen episodes on her gradual journey towards discovering that she was a Cylon, and now she’s a glaring vilainess whose only function is to turn up and tell Athena/Sharon a vital plot element. Having built up our sympathies and explored the aftermath of her ‘rebirth’ in Downloaded, for things to end up like this is a ridiculous waste and a massive disappointment.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that whereas Downloaded was one of the best episodes of the series, the aftermath of Downloaded is pushing the show closer and closer to ‘Jump the Shark’ territory thanks to a frustrating inability by the writers to build on their portrayal of the Cylons. The end of Downloaded hinted that the conformity-based society of the Cylons was about to start fragmenting, and yet we’ve had very few results from that- except for the Occupation, which seemed to be a consensus decision rather than something done against the status quo. What’s more, Downloaded has shifted the Cylons away from their previous identity as more menacing, ambiguous figures, and towards the Cylons being traditional SF bad guys– as well as the prime antagonists of the series. For most of the 1st and 2nd seasons, the Cylons are ambiguous antagonists, and much of the time the actual threat and conflict comes from the human members of the cast- Colonel Tigh’s disastrous foray as Fleet Commander, for example. They played much better when the Centurions were the main footsoldiers, and the ‘Human’ models were a fleeting, ambiguous prescence aside from the presence of the Six inside Baltar’s head. Now, we’re spending time with them, finding out what kind of music they listen to, and they’re much less interesting as a result. (The Base-star sequences are occasionally effective, but do smack a little of desperately trying to conjure up a dreamy atmosphere, and also sit very uncomfortably with the rest of the show, pushing it towards sillier territory).

Also, is it just me, or do the Cylon’s actions following Downloaded not make much sense? Downloaded ends with the victory of the two individual Cylons, their realisation that the Cylon civillisation has headed in the wrong direction, and their determination to change things. As a result, the Cylons abandon the colonies, claim they’ve made a mistake- but then turn up a year later, and decide to try being an Occupying force. What was the Occupation actually supposed to acheive, in greater terms? How does it add up with the end of Downloaded? And why, exactly, have the Cylons now decided that they’d like a piece of that Earth action for themselves? In A Measure of Salvation, Helo raises the question that there might be other Cylons like Sharon/Athena who may themselves be on the verge of rebelling- if so, where the hell are they? I’d have expected major fragmentation in the Cylons as a result of Downloaded- but the disagreements seem to have been conveniently kept to a minimum, with Boomer mainly towing the party line on the Occupation despite it involving the torture and inprisonment of the people she claimed to love back in Downloaded. It doesn’t scan, and it doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere.

In terms of story, it’s feeling dangerously like the show has reached a plateau, and it’s similar in terms of emotion and character. Certainly, the Lee/Kara situation is showing exactly why it’s a very bad idea to let a ‘will they, won’t they?’ couple actually get together- I read on coalescent’s livejournal that he felt Unfinished Business had the wrong emotional climax, and I’d agree. It was actually an episode I enjoyed much more than A Measure of Salvation and Hero- clumsy in places (the flashbacks at the climax were clunky in the extreme) and showing more of the show’s preponderance towards speech-making, but some nice character-based stuff, and a welcome lack of floaty Cylon nonsense. It was even good to see that the very vaguely portrayed rift between Lee and Kara (another plotline that was largely ignored) actually had a damn good reason- but it felt like a cop-out to simply have them punch out their anger and end up in a touching embrace. To be honest, I’d have been happy seeing Starbuck have the stuffing knocked out of her- the writer’s take on Starbuck this season has been consistent with her being a very damaged character, and with her experiences on New Caprica- but my god, she’s no longer fun to be around. Season 2’s Scar pointed to some possible growth and maturation in Starbuck, but we’re back to maladjusted Kara, and it’s less and less interesting as it goes on. (It’s also worth debating if it would actually have been more interesting if they hadn’t immediately hit the reset button and revealled that Casey wasn’t Starbuck’s daughter- it’s an emotional moment, but it feels like a major contrivance, and giving Starbuck a new responsibility might have been more interesting than what we’ve got).

This also means that now, we’ve got a Kara who’s happy to treat her husband as a convenient sex toy and sleep around whenever she wants, but won’t get a divorce because ‘Marriage is a sacrament’. I know people like this exist, but it feels more like a wrinkle to maintain conflict in the Lee/Kara relationship than a convincing character trait, and it certainly means that any sympathy for Lee and Kara flies right out of the window. The whole ‘love quadrangle’ plotline actually has me wishing that they’d promote Anders to a lead and kill off Apollo- he’s certainly a much more interesting character, and Apollo has stalled ever since the beginning of Season 2. The fact that he’s even watchable is down to Jamie Bamber’s performance, but the writers have been floundering (Erm… let’s give him a tragic ex-girlfriend! Let’s have him suddenly be interested in Dualla for no reason! Let’s make him fat!!) and the show’s suffering as a result. If they can pull off a decent ending to this, I’ll be impressed- but I can’t help feeling it’s looking more and more unlikely.

Galactica may have peaked already, and I can’t help feeling that they really need to do something dangerous and interesting to shake up the show- as the ‘one year ahead’ leap worked initially, but had now ended up with the same problems rearing their head. When it’s on form, it’s still sensational- but the storytelling is getting too obvious, and there’s too much is being lost or fiddled around with in the editing. It’s one of those cases where I just want to sit the producers down with a DVD of the first season and say “There! Remember? That’s how it’s done!”, as well as stressing that just because something’s a cool and resonant allegory, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s a good idea.

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