Time for another round-up of my current viewing. As usual, fear the spoilers….
I’m currently three episodes ahead on the second run of Heroes S3 which has just commenced on BBC2 (which will be referred to as Volume 4 from now on, for the sake of sanity), and the show has definitely improved – but considering what a glorious disaster Volume 3 was in terms of sense-defying plotting, it’d have to be trying hard to be worse. To the show’s credit, they have made a definite effort to relaunch, and the first episode of Volume 4 – “A Clear and Present Danger”- is arguably the finest the show’s been since S1. It’s a mark of how tired its various devices have become that episode 14 seemed fresh simply because of the fact that it dumped most of them (especially Mohinder’s Meaningful Monologues, thank heaven), and gave the show a certain edge and directness that it had lacked for a long time. Of course, it hasn’t lasted, because for all the talk of a reboot, what we’ve essentially got here is a retread of S1 combined with The Fugitive – the show’s already going off on bizarre tangents (Leaving aside the question of how they were able to travel to Delhi so easily, what the hell was the point of Hiro and Ando’s adventures in India? And was there a budgetary or editing reason for Ando’s entire abduction happening offscreen?), as well as falling into the usual trap of turning its female characters into damsels in distress who need to be rescued, and lazily handing abilities around that allow them to keep up their random stream-of-consciousness storytelling – the Tim Sale-drawn visions of the future being an incredibly lazy device now that’s just gotten older as the episodes go by. Adrian Pasdar is fantastic at playing morally compromised, there are occasional fun moments and it’s good that they’ve mostly eased down on the continuity porn, but while I’m interested to see whether Bryan Fuller’s arrival can do anything to help the show, I’m not convinced that Heroes is heading anywhere other than swiftly downwards.
Elsewhere on the BBC, Mad Men is into its second season – having caught up with the first on DVD last September, I decided to be patient and wait for the BBC airing, and it’s as good as ever – although I am getting the feeling that it’s a show that works much better as a DVD set. Split out week by week, it’s an odd experience, as it’s exceptionally written and brilliantly scripted but the very soul of low-key drama, with volumes of information being told very subtly. It’s the kind of thing I like and admire but I’m not certain if I love – it’s an intriguing and thought-provoking show, but it’s not one that makes me scream out to watch the next episode, and yet I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. A fantastic ensemble, though – Jon Hamm is simply fantastic as Don Draper, and the other attention-grabbing character is Christina Hendricks as Joan – and not simply for her non-stop parade of figure-hugging Sixties fashions in blazing colours, but the fact that she’s such a wonderful collection of contradictions – a mixture of confidence, bitchiness and a well-concealed sadness. A fascinating show, whatever hapens, and with some of the best crafted dialogue you’ll hear on TV.
And dialogue brings us to Being Human, which seems to be on a quest to burn up all the goodwill it earned from me in its first episode. Aside from a brief upward reversal in episode 3, it’s been rather painful all the way, and it’s somewhat depressing to see what could have been a really good show being ruined by identikit TV drama scripting cliches and some really, really bad dialogue. Despite my previous enquiries about the nature of Being Human’s vampires (another point being – if Mitchell bought briefly into the idea of the vampire takeover in episode 5 before switching back, what exactly did he think they were going to do about food? What’s the point of vampires taking over the world if you’re not going to feed on the population) I could genuinely have coped with the logic holes if the writing had been better. Instead, we’ve got an overload of angst, and big flowery dialogue speeches that nobody in their right mind would attempt (a big chunk of Annie’s final speech to Owen was awesomely bad), and a really clunky mix of soap, slapstick, horror, melodrama and one-note characterisation (especially with the conveniently psychotic Owen). The really annoying thing is that there are still enjoyable moments in there – the ‘secret’ Annie whispers in Owen’s ear is a fantastic touch that I hope they don’t even think of going anywhere near (It’s scary precisely because you don’ t know what it is), there are nuggets of really good dialogue buried amongst the dross, and the leads are still likable. I will be watching the final episode, but the descent into near-Torchwood levels of Total Bollocks Overdrive at the end of episode 5 (could we have fewer scenes of fanged men going “Raaar!” at the camera, please?) hasn’t exactly filled me with confidence.
Elsewhere on USTV, Fringe is continuing to be a perplexing series that’s mostly a massively average melding of CSI, The X-Files and Alias without anything to give it an identity of its own – but I have to admit to really enjoying the mini-arc that’s arisen around mystery criminal Mr Jones (the rather brilliant Jared Harris, son of the late Richard Harris), a science-terrorist who it seems is actually fighting a war against another universe, and is trying to induct the lead character (who is so dull, I can’t even remember her name and I’ve seen all the episodes) into joining the fight. There are points where Fringe is fun, nutty and creative stuff – it does take the mad science relatively seriously, and there are some very neat moments – but it’s still a very long way from being compulsive viewing.
And then there’s Battlestar Galactica, entering its last few episodes and mainly adhering to the format laid down in the first half of Season 4 – moments of absolute brilliance interspersed with overwritten nonsense and time-wasting character drama that’s not quite as incredibly rivetting as the writing staff seem to think it is. I will admit, there’s been a major bounce-back after the first couple of episodes, which hacked me off no end and had me wondering exactly what the show was playing at – the buildup to the mutiny was dull, but the mutiny two-parter was some of the most genuinely exciting stuff the show’s done for a long time, and they followed it up with ‘No Exit’, a genuinely brilliant episode that crammed in a vast amount of backstory, but which actually managed to make the Cylon mythos largely make sense – it’s convoluted and strange, but it does actually work and if I do ever watch the entire show again (which is in no way guaranteed, I have to say), it’ll be fascinating to see what effect this has on the whole saga. Unfortunately, we then got an episode which mainly focussed on Ellen and Sol Tigh, and plenty of angst over the new Cylon baby, all of which felt like a placeholder bit of character filler rather than a vital bit of the story (which, considering there’s only four episodes to go, you’d think they’d be doing), and once again had the feeling of an overwritten one-act Off-Broadway play, an aspect it shared with much of ‘Sometimes A Great Notion’ and ‘A Disquiet Follows My Soul’. Plus, they’re still getting certain things wrong – James Callis’ Baltar is once again straying a bit too far towards comedy, and his switch from self-serving fake Messiah to guilt-ridden and back to self-serving plays more like the writers changing their minds than anything else. And is giving Baltar’s gang guns really going to help? I’m sure there will be some really strong moments in the final episodes of the show, but Galactica has ended up (at least for me) a long way from the powerhouse show of the early second season – it’s still managing to entertain me, but the flaws in the execution and the writing are way too big for me to jump on the “Best Show EVAH!” bandwagon.
Finally, we’ve got the one show which is still managing to consistently entertain me. Lost has had its serious ups and downs over the past five seasons – none more so than in the over-extended and flabby second season – but ever since around the mid-point in S3, it’s been on an upward curve, and the decision to set a definite end-point on the show has (at least so far) paid off in spades. Season 4 was genuinely impressive if a little up and down – some of which was thanks to the Writer’s Strike, and some of which was simply some miscalculations on the part of the writers, but so far in Season 5 they’ve barely put a foot wrong. The dumping of the character-centric Flashbacks is a definite positive move – no longer anchored to its trademark structure, the show is now allowed to do almost anything it likes, and it’s generally behaving in the way you’d want a show that knows it’s only got a limited life-span to behave – it’s packing every episode full of incident and strangeness, and amping up the experimentation. S5 has had its weak moments – there are occasional scenes that are a little too knowing, some of the comedy in S5 E02 “The Lie” was overdone, and Fionnula Flannigan is simply a bit too arch and theatrical as the mysterious Elouise Hawking, but elsewhere we have the adventurous time-travel gambit, a whole selection of great characterisation (particularly the ever-excellent Jeremy Davies getting some really good material at last as Daniel Farady), some did-that-really-happen? moments (most especially “Shit, the Smoke Monster just tore someone’s arm off!) and a sense that the writers aren’t being afraid to play to the fans – they know that it’s largely going to be the people who’ve stuck with the show who’ll be left watching, and we’re getting genuine payoff along with new mysteries.
It’s a mark of how well they’ve handled dumping the flashbacks that S5 E06 – ‘316’ – never feels like anything other than a Lost episode, despite the fact that- other than the flash-forward teaser- it’s arguably the most linear episode they’ve ever made. ‘316’ was breathtakingly good, and a brilliant demonstration of what Lost does best, derailing expectations at every turn and delivering so many awesome moments that it was only the fact that I was watching it late at night and didn’t want to wake up my housemate in the next room that stopped me from regularly giving it a round of applause. The set-up with the Oceanic Six’s return to the Island has, understandably, been moving in fits and starts since episode 1, and it seemed pretty likely that even with episode 5’s ending, with Jack and Sun meeting Mrs Hawking, that we were in for plenty of business, twists, and a playing up of the limited window to get back to the Island (especially since so many of the Six were determined never to go back). And then, we hit the teaser, and what I really thought was going to be another fake-out, a dream, or some kind of twist – but it wasn’t. Bang – within the first two minutes, we’ve seen Jack, Hurley and Kate back on the Island, and we then rewind back to find out how it happenned but, in a manouevre that’s pure Lost, it ends up less about plot mechanics than character, paying off the journey that Jack began back in the sense-defying flash-forward at the end of S3 as the man of reason decides to embrace fate and see where it takes him. And, while still keeping the storytelling linear, and mostly keeping the episode purely from Jack’s perspective (a device that’s incredibly effective, especially in the lead-up to Kate’s unexpected arrival), we’ve also got a shedload of fantastically perplexing and unexplained plot nuggets through what we’re not being told (and which will, presumably, be told in flashbacks in upcoming episodes) – from Kate’s deeply worrying switch from protective mother to traumatised and never wanting to be asked about Aaron, to the nature of Ben’s injuries (we know he’s obviously tried to kill Penelope Widmore, and very bad things have happenned – we just don’t know what), to Sayid’s presence on the plane, and how the new characters in the first class compartment will fit in with the ensemble. Plus, there’s the simple twist on the relationship between Jack and Locke, and Jack reading the suicide note, and the realisation that not only are they back on the Island but they’ve yet to find out that they’re probably back in the Seventies or Eighties when Dharma was still active – ‘316’ was simply fantastic from beginning to end, and it’s hard to think of a show on TV that’s as demanding or satisfying. At the least, I’m loving what I’ve seen so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing exactly how far they’ll push the weirdness threshold in the episodes to come…