Time for a round-up of some of the stuff I’ve been experiencing in the last couple of months, from the delights of Crooked House to the worrying blandness of Legend of the Seeker, from the fall of Western Civilisation to Martin Shaw in a dog-collar shouting at the devil, it’s all here – and, as usual, fear the spoilers….
To be honest, it’s nice to be vindicated. Just under two years ago, when all of sci-fi fandom was getting over-excited about how amazing Heroes was and how it was really showing how serialised drama like Lost should be done, I had the sneaky suspicion that things were getting out of hand, and that while Heroes was capable of being really impressive, it wasn’t always that good. And now, with Season 3’s supposed ‘re-energising’ of the series making it look more like a smoking ruin, it’s kind of hard to remember a point since ‘Company Man’ in S1 when the show’s been genuinely firing on all cylinders. After all, let’s be honest- S2 may have comitted the sin of being repetitive and boring, but S3 really did strike out into new territory of badness, creating several episodes where for about 80% of the time I genuinely couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It’s incredibly hard to believe that anyone was in charge, and it’s easy to believe that Tim kring finds serialised storytelling tricky, as S3’s running arc was an absolute bloody mess that just got more tangled and confused as the weeks went by. Combine this with jaw-dropping lapses in logic, a schizoid attitude to characterisation and the writers seeming to change their minds every other episode (“Peter’s taken Sylar’s powers! He’s got the Hunger… oh, then again, maybe not, let’s have them all taken away instead”) and you’ve got a show that now rivals legendary daffy US TV soap opera Sunset Beach for sheer lunatic badness.
To give them their due, there are some aspects of S3 that have come off relatively well. Once they got past the worrying stalker-ness of the initial stages, the Matt Parkman/Daphne relationship was engagingly cute, while Sylar’s struggle to be good may have been a tad cliched at times (and got dropped in a rather unbelievable fashion) but was at least something new with a character was getting boringly one-note. In fact, things actually began to come slightly back into focus in the last couple of episodes, as they finally remembered that morally ambiguous is what Adrian Pasdar does best, and the incredibly boring Robert Forster finally got a well-deserved bullet through the frontal lobes (although I’m not sure why Arthur couldn’t stop Sylar – he has Peter’s abilities, and Peter got the telekinesis from Sylar, but then logic really hasn’t been a strong point this season). Plus, we had the sequence with Ando getting an ability, which may have been a little too convenient in certain respects, but was also the first conceptually cool moment in Heroes for a very long time, as well as a nice example of them remembering that the powers work best as metaphors for the characters, rather than just going “Hey- a guy who can make black holes! Wouldn’t that be cool!” Even Sylar’s somewhat unbelivable lapse back into evil was fairly well-played with the Saw-like shennanigans in Primatech, although they needn’t have bothered leaving a question mark over Sylar’s fate – they’re still far to terrified to kill off any truly significant characters. With Primatech burned to the ground and Hiro without his powers, they’re obviously going for a reboot in ‘Volume 4’- although I can’t help feeling that with the characters having to hide their abilities, live normal lives and avoid shadowy authorities out to get them, we’re not really going to be that different from S1. At the least, the last couple of episodes of Volume 3 weren’t quite enough to turn me off the idea of seeing where it goes, but it was damn close, and Volume 4’s going to have to be something truly sensational if it’s going to pull Heroes out of what looks like a terminal dive.
One aspect that may help, of course, is that within a few short weeks of Volume 4’s opening, Bryan Fuller will be back writing for the show – it’ll certainly be interesting to see what kind of a difference his presence makes – and of course, sadly, this is all because Pushing Daisies has finally met its end. Leaving its return for so long was obviously a very bad idea – such a kooky setup is only going to be a success if it’s a constant presence, and while I’ve only managed to track down the first part of S2 so far, I’m not especially surprised that it wasn’t a roaring success. “Bzzzz” is certainly fun, and packed full of all the show’s usual loopy ingredients, but it all felt pitched at a slightly shrill level – it’s a tremendously difficult tone to get right anyway, but much of the first episode felt forced, like being locked in a room with someone brightly dressed and perky who really wants you to have a good time and WON’T STOP TALKING. I loved the first season but suspected it was going to have a short lifespan – and while hopefully the show does bounce back, I can’t help feeling that it wouldn’t necessarily have survived being stretched out for too long.
On this side of the pond, on the other hand, we’re currently knee-deep in genre television – you can’t throw a brick at the schedules without hitting something that’s either fantasy, sci-fi or- in the case of Apparitions – horror oriented. The scope of the show did broaden out after the first two episodes, and it’s ended up a bizarrely interesting and frustrating series that tackles some challenging, eerie and intelligent material, but also frequently comes across as cack-handed and daft. It wasn’t until the final episode that I cottonned onto what was wrong, and it’s essentially that it’s a story all about faith where there’s no ambiguity. Whatever serious points the show has to make about belief and morality tend to get somewhat distorted when people start levitating on kirby wires and howling in subtitles- this is emphatically a universe where demons definitely exist, and where Martin Shaw (lord save us) is the only man who’s willing to stand against them. It’s not until the final episode that there’s any real threat to his faith, and even here, while the series does flirt with the idea of ambiguity – especially with the deliberately unsympathetic blonde psychologist – it isn’t long before there’s a demonic assassination to be foiled, and Cherie Lunghi is turning up as the Flaming Nun from Hell. I take my hat off to Joe Aherene for trying to push the boundaries in many places with this series, but he never quite escapes the whiff of silliness, and the sense that almost all the episodes end with Martin Shaw yelling religious phrases while All Hell Breaks Loose(TM). In the end, there’s a distinct aura of Dario Argento about it – and that’s not always a good thing, as anyone who’s watched The Card Player will attest…
In fact, if you wanted an example of how to get TV horror completely right, look at Mark Gatiss’ Crooked House on BBC4, an attempt to resurrect the old-school creepy ghost story for Christmas tradition, an attempt that’s pretty damn successful. Anyone who’s watched The League of Gentlemen (and particularly the movie) will know how much Gatiss and his cohorts adore traditional horror, and here there’s not the relief of punchlines to take away the spookiness. Indeed, it’s a similar structure to the League Christmas special (which got pretty spooky in its own right), with three tales revolving around a tumbledown manor house where evil things have occurred, and probably the only problem you could cite is that it’s far too short, and you could do with more than two stories before attention shifts to the present day. Otherwise, these are excellently done spine-tinglers that go for the slow-burn, concentrating on gradual accumulation of detail and letting you get to know the characters before everything starts going horribly wrong. Leaping from the late 1700s to the 1920s to the present day, it’s very well played, atmospherically directed, and with each episode featuring at least one moment that counts as horribly, skin-crawlingly scary, it’s exactly the kind of chilly entertainment winter nights were invented for. I haven’t always got on with Gatiss’ solo work – I found his first Lucifer Box novel fun but almost painfully arch and knowing – but here he’s on firmer ground, delivering a brand of horror that’s perfectly English, and yet original enough that it doesn’t simply feel like going through the motions for old times’ sake. Hopefully he won’t leave it too long before he hits the horror trail once again…
Another recent escapade for the BBC has been Survivors, which has certainly been better than expected, updating the Seventies show’s original setup and adding plenty of post-apocalyptic action. It’s certainly a good example of how incredibly prevailant Apocalypse images are now – back when 28 Days Later was first released, harking back to the Wyndham-esque disasters and the idea of a deserted Britain felt fresh and new – now, it’s Apocalypse-a-go-go, and much of the 90 minute pilot was entertaining but very familiar, as if we were really just seeing riffs on ideas we’d seen many times before (even Max Beesley’s sections felt like a reference to The Stand). The pilot was engaging, and featured a couple of nice (if somewhat daft) red herrings in the form of the highly-billed but very quickly dead Shaun Dingwall and Freema Agyeman – although the nature of the virus was somewhat confusing at times (I was somewhat perplexed – only Julie Graham and Freema mentioned the ‘lump under the arm’ symptom, which made it look like their version of the virus was related, and yet Freema didn’t get a ‘Get out of Virus Infection Free’ card…), and the contrived way that the majority of the population seemed to conveniently drop dead at the same time was very hard to swallow. By the end of the episode, plotlines are meeting up, and we’re in a distinctly Lost state of mind (Julie Graham doesn’t actually say ‘Live Together or Die Alone’, but it’s as good as). By the second episode, the show shifts away from the virus itself to the aftermath, and its here that my interest started to wane, and I didn’t actually watch beyond the third episode – while it’s pacey, energetic stuff, the characters aren’t the most likable bunch you can imagine, and there’s a somewhat Daily Mail-esque tone to the proceedings, with almost all the working class characters being gun-wielding scum out for themselves, the seemingly friendly government minister being a wannabe fascist, and sensible middle class people trying to find a way of leading a sensible middle-class life. A little bit too much manipulation – it may all be worryingly believable in certain respects, but I prefer my apocalypse tempered with a little more genuine humanity – or zombies, depending on exactly how lurid my mood is….
Rather more entertaining and escapist was Merlin, which evolved into a rather enjoyable (if never completely brilliant) way of spending a Saturday evening. Almost all of its success is down to casting, with almost all the leads being enjoyable to watch, and a tone which allows things to be frothy and lively and Potter-esque (Harry, not Dennis, for anyone who was wondering… And now, all I can think is “Dennis Potter’s Merlin…” Oh dear…)but never completely forgets that there’s supposed to be a sense of threat. So, it was fun, lively and colourful stuff, but it did also start running into the problems inherent in its setup – that you can only do a secret superhero tale (which is essentially what Merlin is) for so long, until it finally all starts getting a little repetitive. While there’s a few nice bits of progressive characterisation through the show – particularly with Morgana’s near-assassination of Uther in the penultimate epsiode – much of Merlin does start drifting into a very formulaic structure, with merlin seemingly spending the end of every single episode running around in secret to foil an evil magical plot against Arthur. The whole cast seems to have succumbed to a near-deadly poison/coma/enchantment at least once, and by the last few episodes I was starting to get somewhat annoyed in the way the show was flirting with major changes but never actually allowing any of them to happen. The biggest offender in this was the season finale which, unfortunately, was also the single weakest episode of the whole run, where there’s lots of mumbling about ‘Questing Beasts’ and ‘The Old Magic’, and a massive amount of shouting, but it’s all sound and fury signifying very little. By the end of it, with a conveniently resurrected Gaius proclaiming that Merlin has ‘mastered the power of Life and Death’ (which he bloody hasn’t – ‘acheived a very nice but completely accidental result by blowing up Michelle Ryan with a bolt of lightning’ would have been more accurate) we’re supposed to feel elated, but it simply ends up feeling the show is already in serious need of something to break the formula. It’s fun stuff, and I’ll be looking forward to the second season, but they should look at the various mistakes that Smallville has made (running so bloody long being one of them, of course) and think about throwing some serious curveballs into the upcoming epsidoes – they’re going to need them.
Of course, whatever the weak moments of Merlin, it could be worse – you could be watching Legend of the Seeker, an awesomely uninteresting fantasy epic from the producers of Xena and Hercules, where the production values are somewhat higher, but virtually all the campness, energy and character seems to have been forgotten. Based on Terry Goodkind’s ludicrously weighty set of fantasy doorstops (I gather the first couple of volumes are quite fun – I had to review volumes 6 and 7, and found them pretty turgid stuff), it’s a tale of a noble farmboy who’s living out a quiet life and dreaming of adventure, but thanks to a runaway princess bearing a vital document he’s soon having to team up with a crazy local wizard and discover that he’s actually destined to leave his home on Tatooine and become a Jedi in order to battle the Evil… no, sorry, wrong film – although as with Eragon, the barefaced similarities between this and the original Star Wars are nothing short of ludicrous. The shameless unoriginality wouldn’t be quite so breathtaking if it was still enjoyable, but the tone is creaky, straight-faced and so dull that even some deeply unexpected (and in no way desired) nudity from respected Aussie actor and Mad Max 2/Beyond Thunderdome star Bruce Spence can’t liven things up. It all looks gorgeous, with the New Zealand locations working doubletime to give a Lord of the Rings vibe to the visuals, and there are a couple of unexpectedly violent moments, but it’s all so pale and inoffensive as to almost defy description. By the time they’ve pulled out that 300-style speed-ramping slow-mo leap with a sword for the third time in a row, anyone sensible will be reaching for the off button with all speed. In all honesty, it’s never quite dreadful, being a long way from televisual disasters like Flash Gordon, mainly committing the sin of being simply rather uninteresting. Now that we’re past the pilot, the show only seems to be using the basic setup of Goodkind’s saga, going for a week-by-week voyage across various kingdoms, but unless I hear some tales of a serious quality upswing, this is a show where I think once is definitely enough.
And finally, elsewhere in the new US TV season there’s Fringe, the latest from J.J. Abrams and the first of his TV projects (aside from Felicity, which I never caught) to fail to grip me. It’s not for want of trying, or for shortage of weird and oddball plot twists, but when the most truly distinctive thing you can say about a series is the way they use 3-D CGI titles to tell you the current location, it’s not exactly the greatest compliment in the world. The missing link between medical/forensic procedurals like House and CSI, and the mad science episodes of The X-Files, it’s a show that’s burbling along in a moderately diverting way – in comparison to Heroes, for example, it hasn’t managed any truly revolutionary of exciting conceptual moments, but it also hasn’t spectacularly insulted my intelligence. It’s the tale of a standard Abrams-identikit tough and troubled heroine (halfway between Sydney Bristow, Kate and The X-Files’ Scully) investigating a sinister worldwide conspiracy to conduct insane scientific experiments, which may be being overseen by all-purpose evil corporation Massive Dynamic. She’s doing this with the help of a kooky scientist (LOTR’s John Noble, being a terribly actorly madman) and his grumpy son (Joshua Jackson), while trying to cope with being haunted by her partner who betrayed her (who’s unfortunately played by the somewhat cardboard Mark ‘Brad from Boston Legal’ Valley). It’s a show that’s easy to watch while its on, and rattles along its furrow of gnarly investigative action, and yet by the end of it it’s hard to say if it’s doing anything truly new, and most of the long-running plot threads are refusing to mesh together into a truly gripping show. Entertaining, but a little unremarkable so far, and I’m certainly a long way from being as involved as I was in the first series of either Lost or Alias…