The new season is here– and of course, thanks to being ridiculously ahead, I’ve now got the slight annoyance of having to wait another week to get to episodes of the new shows I haven’t seen yet (although I may watch Reaper again, simply to see how it’s been changed thanks to the main ‘girlfriend’ role being recast from Thirteen star and co-writer Nikki Reed to Heroes’ ex-shapechanger Missy Peregrym). Despite this, there’s still some new TV to discuss, so once more unto the breach, dear friends. Fear the spoilers…
It was true back in the late Eighties, and it’s still true now – Glen Close isn’t anyone you want to cross. Having attracted serious attention for her work on The Shield, she’s now starring in this legal drama, and it’s a seriously impressive piece of work, as well as the first example I can think of that Lost-style flashbacks and multi-threaded storytelling have been used in a purely mainstream drama. It’s the story of Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), fresh out of law school who’s recruited by tough litigator Patty Hewes (Glen Close) a woman who you just don’t say no to. She’s soon working on a case involving billionaire Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson, in amazingly good form), and while she’s balancing her job with her personal life and her engagement with a handsome doctor, it’s obvious something’s going to give. In fact, it’s obvious right from the beginning of episode 1, as we keep flashing forward to events that, as the series progresses, are marching ever closer, showing that Ellen’s life is going to get several very interesting shades of horrible, and it’s all tied to the Frobisher case, as well as the unstoppable form of Patty Hewes. Intricately plotted, Damages is a quality piece of work that gives Close a chance to shine in a fantastic role– Patty Hewes is manipulative to a terrifying level, and yet never crosses the line into ridiculous monster– instead, Close anchors her to a humanity and a belief that she’s doing the right thing that only succeeds in making her scarier. Byrne also does fantastic work, and the series has given almost all of its cast multiple dimensions – especially Zeljko Ivanek as Ray Fisk, the morally compromised lawyer handling Frobisher’s end of the case. To be honest, the flip-flopping between Ellen’s dire predicament and the past has lost a little traction over the last three episodes, and there have been certain elements (such as Danson’s character trying to pen his Autobiography and ending up having a fight with his ghostwriter) that have felt a little too self-contained and inserted simply to bolster out the plot for longer than it technically needs to be. It’s possible that 13 episodes is just a little bit too long for this kind of storytelling, and the series may have been even better shortened slightly, but it’s still a legal drama functioning at the top of its game, and even some of the slightly dafter moments (such as the melodramatic twist involving Ellen’s fiance and a potential affair) can’t counteract the powerhouse work that Close is carrying out in the lead role.
Narration is risky. Get it right, and you’ve got Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. Get it wrong, and you’ve got Danny Dyer in The Football Factory (sweet god, let that actor never be let near a voice-over booth ever again…). It’s understandable why it gets used so much, but it can very easily go wrong as in the first episode of Gossip Girl, the latest slice of heaving teen lust and angst from the creator of The O.C. It seems that despite having also co-penned new series Chuck, Josh Shwartz hasn’t quite gotten the teen soap bug out of his system, and Gossip Girl shows every sign of being a fantastic piece of throwaway trash with a first episode that was hilariously melodramatic and howlingly bad in places, and yet still managed to have enough charm to keep me interested. In fact, I would have been having a whale of a time if it hadn’t been for the godforsaken voice-over… To briefly explain, it’s a tale of a high-class school attended by disgustingly rich teens and a handful of slightly less disgustingly rich sympathetic teens, all of whom are addicted to posting the various rumours or sightings or gossip of who snogged/shagged/glared at who on the website Gossip Girl– run by a mystery, all-seeing girl who acts as a rather arch Greek chorus on the events that unfold as conflicted good girl Serena van der Woodsen (I kid you not… – played by the slightly more sensibly named Blake Lively) returns to school and sets off a hornet’s nest of intrigue. At least, the identity of Gossip Girl was a secret for about five minutes, until I then realised that either Gossip Girl is an incredibly odd way of doing Veronica Mars season 4, or Kristen Bell felt in serious mood for some voice-over work. What’s most surprising is that while Bell did plenty of voiceover on Veronica Mars, here she’s awesomely irritating, but that’s mainly the fault of the writing itself, pitching Gossip Girl as a permanently catty presence set at handbags-at-dawn irony mode. It’s an odd touch to recruit Bell, especially since there are certain of Gossip Girl that are reminiscent of Veronic Mars, from the divisions between the rich and the… er… slightly less rich, to the heroine who’s distanced from her rich friends and has a skeleton lurking in her closet. There’s even a Logan Eckles-style bastard (at least, Logan back in early Season 1 before he actually became interesting), and another VM alumnus in the form of Leighton Meester (playing the similarly insanely named Blair Waldorf). While the cliches pile up at a maginifcent rate, and the whole thing scores at least 8.3 on the Camp Richter Scale, it’s glossily put together, Lively is a compelling heroine with enough depth to make her at least vaguely interesting, and they’re setting up a potentially cute romance for her with one of the slightly less rich kids. Ridiculous names, OTT situations, lust, deceit and lots of arched eyebrows– this could be great fun, or it could be monumentally annoying within a couple of episodes. Only time will tell…
I tried. My god, I tried. It was a difficult, almost superhuman effort, but I eventually made it. After my third attempt… I made it all the way through Flash Gordon episode 2, and immediately wondered exactly why I bothered. I wasn’t imagining things in the Pilot– this really is a spectacularly drab series that’s barely making any effort to conceal its shoddy budget. This week, instead of a stuntman in an unconvincing robot costume, our villain of the week is… a caveman. A big-haired caveman with a digitally altered voice. And eyeliner. There’s also a plotline involving Princess Aura and Ming squabbling over the fate of a man found guilty of ice smuggling that shows the producers really have no idea whatsoever about true pulp villainy (the whole fun of Ming is supposed to be that he’s unrepentantly evil, for god’s sake!)– although it did feature the fantastic spectacle of a man being executed by disco lighting. By the climax, I genuinely couldn’t believe my eyes, and only a large amount of money would tempt me back to this piece of misbegotten televisual jetsam. By all accounts, the Sci-Fi channel are going to split the Galactica finale season over an entire year, and while they’re playing silly buggers with one of their few decent shows (even the worst episodes of BSG Season 3 I’d rather watch again than Flash Gordon), they’re throwing all their efforts behind this kind of throwaway garbage.
The mind. It boggles…
One of the biggest surprises so far has been that this saga of David Duchovny shagging his way around Los Angeles has actually turned out to be surprisingly charming. It’s still an uneven watch, with one of the worst title sequences I’ve seen in a long time (it’s as if they had three opposing ideas, couldn’t decide which one to do, and just settled for doing all of them at once), and yet the tone has settled down somewhat, and they’ve actually allowed Duchovny to start playing the charming side of the charming asshole equation. One element which definitely helps is that the ridiculous level of nudity in the first couple of episodes has been toned down (plus, there’s been no repeat of the frankly pretty poor gross-out humour that featured Duchovny apparently having anal sex with the guidance councillor from S1 of Veronica Mars, and then throwing up all over a painting he didn’t like. Hilarious…), and Duchovny’s self-loathing writer was actually allowed to have a genuine relationship with a woman that lasted three episodes, and actually managed to be wistful, romantic, and genuinely sad at the same time. It also generated some great humour, particularly with Duchovny going on a raid to steal back a dog named Cat Stevens (a long story…), and managed to make the show feel like it wasn’t going to be all about what shape breasts Duchovny’s latest conquest was going to have. Most of all, in the last few episodes, the show has built on the strongest element of the first couple of episodes– the interplay between Duchovny, Madeleine Martin as his rock-chick/goth daughter, and Natascha McElhone as his ex. They still haven’t yet figured out a way of portraying worrying nymphette Mia (Madeline Zima) in a way that makes her feel like an actual character rather than a convenient set of behaviours (despite one scene that hinted at some depth), but Californication is looking as though it might slowly edge closer towards finding its feet. It’s probably never quite going to get over its nature as a “Look! My god, aren’t we being EXPLICIT!” cable show, and yet it’s showing all the signs that it’s going to continue being fun for a while yet.