TV EYE: The Roundup

A long-delayed update on my viewing habits- and with the strike soon to be bringing the TV season to a juddering halt, I may soon have to start babbling on about vintage Doctor Who again. Anyhow, here’s what I’ve been getting up to – fear the spoilers…

I hearby raise my hand and admit that I was wrong – despite my suspicions, Pushing Daisies is turning out to be a complete delight. Annoyingly typical that it gets granted a full 22-episode season, and now the Writer’s strike seems likely to bring it to a halt at episode nine, but so far there’s been only a couple of moments that have revived my ‘Too Kooky’ fears (most especially, the They Might Be Giants “Birdhouse in Your Soul” singalong in episode 4), and a whole selection of blissfull fun pitched at such a gloriously insane, stylised level that it’s impossible not to be swept along by it. What’s most notable about the series is how deceptive it is – the tone is comic and surreal, the dialogue snaps and crackles and there’s often a quite amazing level of cuteness… and yet Pushing Daisies works because at it’s heart, it’s an incredibly sad show that’s all about death, abandonment, and the idea of meeting the girl of your dreams and never being able to actually touch her. The emotional darkness is what prevents it from floating away on a whimsical cloud of its own making – that, and the sardonic prescence of Chi McBride as Emmerson Cod, raising sarcasm to an art form. What also helps is that away from the episodic, procedural structure, each episode is actually heavily interlinked, and they’re already progressing the characters and trying to evolve them, especially with Kristin Chenowith as Olive Snook, who’s turning out to have unexpected depth for a character who could easily have been a cardboard cut-out. Aside from the pilot, the best episode so far has definitely been where Chuck discovers who died so that she can live, but even with the occasional wobbles, it’s been an astoundingly strong run, with Lee Pace and Anna Friel proving to be a great combination. It’s the one show of the new season that I really wanted to succeed – but even if circumstances conspire to make certain that it only gets a nine episode run, at least Bryan Fuller and his team of writers have done their best to make it a memorable one.

And here, I also have to raise my hand and admit that my latest official guilty pleasure– teen soap Gossip Girl – is now my second favourite new show of the latest season. It’s still living up to its standard of a trashy tale of ludicrously wealthy Manhattan teens, and for half the time it fully qualifies as a so-bad-it’s-good pleasure, from the eminently predictable and utterly outrageous plot twists, to the occasionally clunky support characters and the habit of going for extended pop montages (The winner in this week’s episode- a sequence featuring one character playing ‘Guitar Hero’ for what seemed to be an absolute bloody eternity). And yet… it’s also hugely enjoyable thanks to some well-crafted dialogue, a cast that are a couple of steps above the usual vacuous teen beauties, and a set of characters it actually feels okay to like. Even eyebrow-raising ‘bad boy’ Chuck Bass is turning out to have a little depth, and the central romance between Dan Humphreys and the insanely monickered Serena Van Der Woodsen has enough chemistry that you actually want things to work out for them, even though there’s also the knowledge that in this kind of teen soap opera, relationships like that get stretched out for as long as humanly possible. Even the faded rock-star father is turning out to be entertaining, and while the ‘Greek Chorus’ style narration from ex-Veronica Mars turned psychotic Heroes electro-bitch Kristen Bell hasn’t exactly grown on me, it’s not annoying me to quite such an extent.

A short while back, Californication reached the end of its first season, simultaneously proving that David Duchovny is an absolute star given the right material, and that the “stumbling in on Duchovny in a terribly compromising position” gag is getting kind of old. A very uneven show, Californication was often shockingly predictable and never quite elbowed its way into the brilliant – but at its best, it tapped into a layer of warped black humour that was both very funny and surprisingly touching. Duchovny’s relationship with his kooky goth daughter was one of the show’s strengths, along with his dogged pursuit of his ex Natascha McElhone– although the Graduate-style finale, while giving the show a happy ending, does leave me wondering where the hell they can take it in Season 2. For a whole six episodes, there was barely any explicit sex, and no nudity (although they seemed to be trying to make up for this with the OTT threesome sequence in episode 10), and the show was at its strongest, actually feeling like the oddball relationship comedy drama it was trying to be, rather than an exercise in how many naked women David Duchovny can encounter in the course of an episode. The Hollywood satire never quite gelled, and the character of Mia refused to be anything other than a collection of weird, near-psychotic tics, leaving her as a convenient temptress rather than a flesh-and-blood person. It’d be nice to think they may learn their lesson and improve Season 2, but I can’t help feeling it’ll be more of the same, but probably with an increased breast count…

Another show that’s grown on me is Chuck, which may still be utterly disposable, but is managing to be so in an entertaining way. After a handful of self-contained episodes of moderate fun, we’ve actually gotten some evolution in the characters, and nobody does snarky quite as well as Adam Baldwin. There’s the sense that the production team are getting a better grip on what works and what doesn’t, and while the balance isn’t perfect, there have been plenty of episodes which feel of a piece with the pilot, rather than a cut-down low price substitute. It’s basically a wacky spoof version of Alias, crossed with a “Nerd as Hero” motif, but it’s working pretty well, and also shows that casting is everything. Zachary Levi’s been allowed to do much more than simply fret and goggle in the lead role, and Yvonne Strahoski also does a great job as the heroine, carrying off both the kick-arse action and the more vunerable side of the character. There’s one scene, at the end of episode 4 (a script which has revolved around trust issues), where Chuck spends the entire time just trying to sincerely ask Sarah for one true thing about her, even her middle name, and she only actually says it when he won’t hear her – it’s the kind of scene that’s all about restraint and the actors involved, and it manages to pull off the inherent sweetness in Chuck that makes it fun. Not that I’d shed many tears if it didn’t make it back from the upcoming strike hiatus…

…unlike Reaper, which I have officially given up on. I stuck it out for five whole episodes, but it seems that all the production team want to do is remake the pilot over and over again, to rapidly diminishing returns. The villains themselves have remained the kind of cut-price adversaries that even the worst episodes of Buffy wouldn’t have gone anywhere near, and while the largely excellent cast are trying hard, there’s only so much they can do with a set-up that’s all about maintaining a very silly and convoluted status quo. It’d work if it was an all-out comedy, and it’d work as an all-out horror- but in trying to do both, they’ve ended up with neither, and even the fabulous Ray Wise can’t do much about that. With almost zero evolution and a premise that’s rapidly running out of both laughs and steam, there’d need to be something pretty damn revolutionary to tempt me back.

Indeed, the feeling about Bionic Woman is roughly similar. As with Chuck, the set-up reeks of Alias, but here the straight-faced tone works against it, and instead we get a selection of Terminator-style graphics, and a set of dated episodes that feel bought in wholesale from the mid-nineties. Michelle Ryan is a good actress, but she simply isn’t interesting enough to make this set-up work, and the episodes without Katee Sackhoff as Sarah Corvus are simply proving how much better it is when the killer blonde bombshell is around, even if a series built on ‘female empowerment’ is also using most of the sexist sci-fi/action cliches in the book. And is it me, or was Ryan far more interesting and engaging when she adopted her native accent for one episode?

Amazingly, the one series about which I expected to feel the same – Journeyman – is actually still holding my attention. I’m not making any great claims for it as a work of televisual genius, but the oddball blend of Quantum Leap and The Time Traveller’s Wife is turning out to be slightly better than I expected. It’s mainly thanks to some well thought-out and kooky time travel twists, most notably in the recent episode where the main character had to reverse-engineer the moment when he fell for his wife, and a pretty good cast, with Kevin McKidd continuing to hold the attention, while Gretchen Egolf as McKidd’s wife is managing to turn a potentially dull character into something both engaging and sexy. Some of the twists are relentlessly overblown, and I’d be hard pressed to tell you what that many of the self-contained “help the person” stories are as they tend to blend into each other, but the overarching story is going in some interesting directions, and there’s a mysterious professor who’s being beautifully restrained in not telling our hero vital information that he obviously knows, in a plotline that’s continuing to pay dividends. It’s never brilliant, but so far is turning out to be a lot more watchable than I would ever have guessed.

Elsewhere, Dexter continues to teter right on the edge of brilliance and yet never quite get there. Season 2 is definitely feeling the lack of an Ice Truck-style killer mystery – and while I applaud them doing something different, it’d be nice if they’d come up with something a little less soapy than Dexter falling into the arms of a manipulative brunette temptress with some serious issues. With the ‘meeting in therapy’ set-up, it’s a twist right out of Fight Club, and I can’t help wishing they’d cast someone other than Hustle star Jaime Murray – she may have that typically gorgeous brunette vibe, but there’s something very odd about her mouth, and her entire cut-glass vowels demeanour means I usually spend most of her scenes desperately hoping for someone to punch her. The fact that the most recent episode has shown that she’s definitely straying into dangerous territory means this might not be too far away, but it’s a plot twist that seems a little lazy, and while the hunt for the ‘Bay Harbour Butcher’ (aka Dexter himself) is delivering plenty of interesting moments, there’s a little too much dead space and not enough momentum. What’s working best is the increased tension between Dexter and the hilariously macho Seargent Doakes (Erik King), the only character on the show who instinctively knows something’s seriously wrong with Dexter. Doakes is a fascinating character, bouncing between menacing and hilarious at the drop of a hat, and I can only hope his trajectory isn’t going to result in an untimely death, as he’s one of the best things in the show. That’s one of the problems with a set-up revolving around secrets – eventually, you just want to see other characters get in on the act (one of the reasons why the climax of Buffy Season 2, with her mother finally learning the truth, is so damn satisfying). Trouble is, revealling the truth for Dexter would, more than likely, end the show, and I’m not sure the writers have a strong enough idea to guide them through where they’re heading. It’s still eminently watchable, and Michael C. Hall is as dazzling as ever, but there’s the sense that the show should be far more shocking, gripping and downright frightening than it actually is.

And finally, there’s the chance for me to say “I am rather frustrated by Life”. Yes, the conceptual procedural with Damian Lewis as a zen-loving Policeman fresh from the slammer had a great opening, and started off with four impressive episodes. Unfortunately, that seems to have been about it, as while the performances have remained strong, the scripts have taken a nose-dive on several occasions, going for hokey twists and over-explanatory dialogue, and generally reminding me exactly why I don’t like procedurals. ‘Powerless’ featured some great work from Sarah Shahi, as detective Dani Reese was pushed back on the wagon by a psycho, but the actual script was creaky at best, while the less said about the lame ‘Solar Power Farm’ subplot, the better, and things didn’t improve that much with the most recent episode. What started off feeling intriguing is now a little mechanical, and even with some serious movement on the show’s overarching plotline, I don’t think it’s enough to prevent my interest from flatlining.

2 thoughts on “TV EYE: The Roundup

  1. I’m on the opposite trajectory with Dexter. Like you, I thought season 1 teetered on the edge of brilliance without quite getting there, but season 2 is slowly making me a believer. Whereas I had originally taken Dexter for yet another show that rejected a stark division between good and evil and then wallowed in the self-satisfaction of being edgy and provocative (exhibit A is, of course, Battlestar Galactica, but The Sopranos strayed into this territory too on occasion), in its second season Dexter is proving to be a story about growing a moral compass. Ultimately, what the show is saying is that being a monster isn’t an excuse for being a bad person – everyone, monsters and ordinary people alike, has to come up with their own moral code. Both the Lila storyline and the FBI investigation are leading Dexter (and his sister) towards this realization. This, to me, is more interesting than yet another serial killer investigation, and I’m glad to see that the show isn’t boxed in by the first season’s format (though I’m at a complete loss as to what the writers will do with Dexter’s story next season).


    • Admittedly, you’re right- the way that Dexter’s character is evolving this season is very interesting, and they are finding a way of evolving the show’s morality, as well as the title character. I guess I wish so much of it wasn’t evolving so that the destination was obvious – for example, it was blindingly clear the moment that Lila turned up that she was going to have a ‘daringly different’ perspective on Dexter, and that they’d end up together at some point. As with a couple of other cable series I’ve seen (especially Damages, recently), I can’t help feeling it’s the kind of thing that might have worked with slightly fewer episodes. And, for the record, while some of the plotlines concerning the supporting cast vary (and they don’t always cohere as well as they could), Jennifer Carpenter is astoundingly good whenever she’s onscreen, and comes close to giving Michael C. Hall a run for his money.
      And, as you say, heaven only knows what they’ll do next season…


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