Monday, 1 October 2007

This Week in TV: Week 1

Here in the UK, not much is going on in tv -- except for the debut of The Peter Serafinowicz Show later this week, of course. You're welcome, by the way, Serafinowicz. You better do your Terry Wogan impression in return. But in the US, this week marked the beginning of the new tv season -- and with it, the end of our free time, as we are going to be watching something like 20 shows this year. Thank god for you, bittorrent -- you help us feel as lazy and slackjawed as we would if we lived in America.

First up should've been K-Ville and America's Next Top Model (if we are not deep, at least we are eclectic), but we never bothered to download K-Ville after middling reviews, and Living tv just started showing ANTM's eighth "cycle" (did you really need to further emphasize that the show is full of bitchy women, Tyra?), which we haven't seen yet. The one showing in the States now is the ninth, so I expect that we'll be plowing through that after the current Living cycle is done. I'm proud to say that I got AdmiralNeck hooked on this show, first as it subliminally crept up on his subconscious as I watched it while he was doing other stuff, next as he'd occasionally look up and say, "Why is that unattractive woman dressed as an exotic bird being forced to climb 50 flights of stairs and then have a photo shoot while barfing and pronouncing medical jargon?", and finally as the show wrapped its glittery, bitchy tentacles around his brain and he grew to love it in all its camp ridiculousness as much as I did. Somewhere Tyra Banks is cackling as she guzzles from a vat of barbecue sauce.

Next up was CSI: Miami, another show that's airing a season behind on UK tv. Notice a trend here? We'll also be waiting till the "current" season finishes on Five and then will do our best to catch up with the actual current season so that we can experience H and Co.'s ridiculousness in real time. The first show we actually watched was Chuck, the new Josh Schwartz series that doesn't have a voiceover by Kristen Bell (though it could probably do with one). It was slickly directed (by McG) and professionally made, featured a fairly charming nerd and his wacky best friend (both of whom work at meaningless service jobs in a large retail outlet), introduced an interesting comic premise and a love interest to boot...and yet there was something a bit off about it. The dialogue had the appearance of being funny without actually eliciting any laughs. Each line that was meant to be a joke had the right tone and delivery, and yet they all seemed like placeholders for writers who had meant to go back and put funnier lines in but never got the chance to.

[In this picture, Chuck, played by Some Guy, is joined by Adam Baldwin, modelling Patrick McGoohan's hair from The Prisoner. Chuck is saving the day here, defusing a bomb using DOS. How this is possible is not explained. - AdmiralNeck] It's a likable enough show, and I'm certainly willing to stick with it -- especially as The O.C. was so often hilarious (with the exception of the execrable third season), and there are erstwhile Veronica Mars writers on staff. Plus, pilots are never the best episodes; even great shows usually need some time to find their footing.

However...we watched Reaper a few days later, and everything that Chuck did wrong, Reaper did right. Like Chuck, it's about a fairly charming nerd and his wacky best friend, both of whom work at meaningless service jobs in a large retail outlet, but while Chuck accidentally learns government secrets, Reaper's main character, Sam, learns that his parents sold his soul to the devil. And gay dudes still can't adopt? They don't even sell it for anything cool, like a giant chicken that lays sacks of money, or a flying donkey, or the ability to multiply themselves. No, instead they use it to save Sam's dad from a terminal illness. BORING. Plus, hello, Ghost Rider? Total rip-off. Nevertheless, the writers explain that as well as they can, plus it turns out that the devil is Ray Wise, which is absolutely perfect casting.

He's exactly the right combination of charming, confident, witty, and lovable (just check out his line reading on, "I'm the devil!"), as well as terrifying when he needs to be. I only found out who Ray Wise was a few months ago when I watched Twin Peaks for the first time, but I thought he was fantastic in that, and also as a reporter in Good Night, and Good Luck; it's criminal that he's not more famous. I want to hug whoever cast him in this, because it's brilliant. But though he's easily the best thing about the show, the pilot had a lot of promise -- it's got a great light comic tone, the jokes are quite funny, the actors seem capable, and the premise allows for both interesting monsters of the week and the darker undertone of Sam's parents' misery at having not gotten a talking monkey out of the deal. While Chuck faltered in tone and didn't immediately have any really likable characters or real wit, Reaper got everything right. I'm looking forward to seeing how it plays out. [The pilot was directed by Kevin "Silent Bob" Smith, doing a much better job than McG on Chuck. A commenter on the AV Club pointed out that this was probably the best-looking project of Smith's career, and he/she has a point. I loved everything about it, pretty much - AdmiralNeck]

Also on Monday we got the return of Heroes -- a lackluster season opener after an even more disappointing finale. The problem with Heroes seems to be that there are a lot of placeholder episodes where not much happens, and then certain standout episodes that completely justify all the rest of the mediocre stuff. The plotting has been fairly good up till now -- except, of course, for the ridiculous cop-outs of the finale -- but the dialogue is still largely flat and I still find myself struggling to care about some of the characters (one of those characters' names rhymes with Glurmesh, and another rhymes with Bricky and Shmeshica). The opener gave us an idea of what's happened to (almost) everyone after the events of the finale, but it didn't do much to advance the plot or further our emotional investment with anyone. Sometimes Tim Kring's Crossing Jordan-heavy resume really shows, and I feel bad for fanboys who have certain expectations about superhero stories but are instead treated to schmaltz about brotherly love above any worries about plausibility or things that make sense. Oh wait, I feel bad for me too.

On Tuesday we got House back, and I can't believe how much I love this show without the Cottages. Funny janitor! (Dr. Buffer!) More Cuddy! Funny, non-suicidal, non-miserably-addicted House! No whining Cameron! No giant-prick Chase! And best of all: more Wilson! Why can't Wilson have this big a role in every episode, I ask you, and also, why can't he move in with House again so they can play more funny homoerotic pranks on each other?

At any rate, it was great to see the show back in its usual form -- when they make House too dark a character, the show loses its charm and becomes a miserable repetitive procedural. It's a repetitive procedural no matter what, but at least when House is cracking racist jokes and Wilson is stealing his cane, we get a lot of entertainment. When House is slipping deeper into the miserable throes of an addiction that we know he's never going to cure, or being relentlessly pursued by a cop with gay panic (he really, really doesn't like having thermometers in his ass, something I think Arthur Conan Doyle never mentioned in the books), the show is too dark to be fun and too shallow to properly explore those issues with any real seriousness. As far as I'm concerned, leave the Cottages out of it and bring on the new interns. (As an aside, I've read several articles now about how miserable Hugh Laurie is living in America without his wife and children, and now I actually kind of have a hard time watching the show knowing that it's making him so unhappy. Move your family to the States, you stupid man! It's not like the show's getting cancelled anytime soon.)

CSI: Original Flava came back on Thursday, and what a relief it was to return to its quiet thoughtfulness after the disgusting bombast of CSI: Miami (not that I don't love the disgusting bombast, of course). CSI is consistently one of the best, and one of the most underrated, shows on tv. I'm not quite sure why it's so ignored critically -- maybe because it's so popular, and critics assume that anything popular (especially anything popular produced by Jerry Bruckheimer) must be shit, or because it gets lumped in with all the other police procedurals on tv (I often see this happen, and know that they couldn't possibly be watching the show to make such a comment). It's always been an intelligent, riveting show, filled with great characters (I don't think there's one character on the show that either of us dislike, which I don't think I can say of any other show on tv) and twisty cases that often manage to keep you guessing until the end. In the past two seasons CSI has upped the game even more and begun playing with the procedural form, experimenting with telling its stories in unusual ways and creating arcs that have reverberations for both the characters and for later storylines.

William Petersen's Gil Grissom is one of the most unusual leading characters on tv -- he is odd and obsessive, a scientist and a man who studies entomology as a hobby, often preferring the company of insects to the company of humans. He is also the best boss ever, fair and kind to a fault, as well as unfailingly thoughtful, about both the people around him and the cases he takes on. He lets the science lead his investigations, never making assumptions -- something the CSI: Miami judgement-bots should take a course in. And he is entirely accepting of oddness in others -- I have never seen him judge even the strangest perps who come through the door. This is perhaps his most unique, and lovable, characteristic -- he even had a charming and utterly believable, though ultimately heartbreaking, romance with a professional madam/dominatrix.

Anyway, CSI returned from a cliffhanger involving one of our beloved CSIs -- Sara, who Grissom is having a relationship with. Last season's Miniature Killer captured her in the finale, and this season's opener concentrates on the team's efforts to find her before she dies out in the desert. For all the drama, it's a profoundly quiet episode, completely different in tone from Quentin Tarantino's fantastic two-parter in which Nick was in peril, but managing to echo some of those episodes' themes. Grisson's profound distress is poignantly shown but never belabored, and Sara's struggle to keep her wits about her (she manages to do several very clever things even while she's hugely disoriented by sunstroke and dehydration) keeps her fate in doubt until the very end. It was a marvelous episode in a show that just keeps getting better and better.

This week we also caught up with HBO's new relationship drama, Tell Me You Love Me (or, as it should be renamed, Tell Me At Length How Much You Resent Me, Then Have Graphic Prosthetic-Based Sex With Me). This show seems to be garnering a generally favorable critical response, and it's tough to see why -- because it's on HBO? Because it's serious and therefore worthy? Because it explores "real" issues that "real" people face? It seems now to merely be a collection of the worst kind of indie movie cliches. There's virtually no music (that's real!), the couples in the show are miserable (also so real!) and only seem to stay together because there wouldn't be a show otherwise, hardly anything ever happens to advance what plots there are (you can't ask for realer than that! People's lives are horrendously boring and miserable!), the characters are all in therapy (just like all white upper-middle-class couples!), and no one ever resolves an argument through communication when it could be dragged out indefinitely through misunderstandings (so real that soap operas abide by it!). Almost every single character in the show is a Gupta -- the only ones who aren't are not so much likable as not hatable enough to want to kill them. The plots revolve around the couples' various problems with each other, and by the third episode in hardly anything has happened, and what has happened has happened badly. [Plus, all the characters spend their time either whining, moaning, or gurning. It's very unpleasant to watch. See below for proof. - AdmiralNeck]

I'm all for quiet movies and tv shows that focus on character rather than a fast-moving plot, but they have to know how to do it right, or the result ends up as bad as any crappy sitcom or Heroes-rehash on network tv. The show is not automatically better because it deals with "real" issues, and I hate that these kinds of shows are given more leeway because they're "serious." Just because you're supposedly talking about issues that matter to most ordinary people, that doesn't give you license to not care about good storytelling. You'd think there would be an extra emphasis on good dialogue and insightful characterization, but instead we get the young couple who have sex a lot and break up over worries about monogamy, the youngish couple who are baby-crazed and only have sex when they're trying to conceive, and the middle-aged couple who have kids and haven't had sex in a year. Seriously? This is the best they could come up with? There's a difference between "classic" conflicts and stereotypical ones. And by the way, Cynthia Mort, real life is often quite funny. If people were really as miserable and humorless as they are on this show, we wouldn't have such an overpopulation problem. And when couples are as miserable in real life as they are here, they usually go ahead and break up. I'm willing to give the show more of a chance -- mostly because AdmiralNeck and I have fun mocking it -- but it better shape up soon.

We also watched the pilots for Bionic Woman, Journeyman, and Dirty Sexy Money (known in our house as Dirty Stupid Monkey), as well as the season premieres of Ugly Betty and The Office, but I'm gonna let AdmiralNeck handle those, as I am reviewed out.


Jaredan said...

I have to agre entirely about Chuck and Reaper. I enjoyed Chuck enough to want to give it a shot, and as I mentioned on my blog (plug, plug) Adam Baldwin gets cut a lot of slack from me.
Reaper was just a lot of fun and hopefully it will carry on well sans Smith but still with the marvellous Wise.
Smith was pissed the executives turned down Kyle Gass for a role in Reaper but it all seemed to turn out well.

Canyon said...

ITA with your assessment that Chuck gets a thumbs-up merely because of Adam Baldwin's presence. He automatically makes a show 1000% better just by showing up (and occasionally growling). They better give him more to do in future episodes.

I'll be in my bunk.

Jaredan said...

A paraphrased synopsis for the preview of the 2nd episode of Chuck:
Adam Baldwin in his green worker shirt, Chuck sitting next to him in his Nerdmobile.

Chuck: So what's the plan?
The Man Called Jayne: I go in kill the 4 or 5 trained guards in the way, rescue the girl and take the boss down.
Chuck: Ok good plan, I'm ready.
AB: That's my plan, your plan is stay in the car.


Gunfire and screams of agony.

Chuck grips onto the car door while ducking down and whimpering: Stay in the car, stay in the car, stay in the car.

sjwoo said...

I've read similar assessments where they compared Chuck to Reaper, and it seems like Reaper is the much better show. I saw about ten minutes of Chuck and that was nine minutes too many. It's written by people who really don't know geeks, and I'm not talking about any sort of geek details that were glossed over. The feel of the show is wrong. The NBC marketing machine will keep it going for a while longer, but I would be surprised if it lasts beyond this season. I think Levine pretty much nailed it.

Wasn't House wonderful? RSL really seemed to be having a good time. I always thought the core of the show was between House and Wilson, so as long as that relationship stays, it'll remain must-watch TV.

Admiral Neck said...

The tragic thing about Chuck is that Josh Schwartz is responsible for creating one of the great TV nerds; Seth Cohen. It seems from the false nerdness of Chuck that the credit for Seth ringing so true must go to Adam Brody and not Schwarz.

The line that stuck in my throat was when Chuck asked Nerd Character #2 if he wanted to play a video game. Gamers don't refer to them as "video games". Do people say they're going to make a telephone call anymore? Or drive around in automobiles? They're called games. I'm sure there are people working on the show that know that, but were probably overruled by some suit saying it's not clear what they're talking about. "Can't have it sound like they do sports. Make sure we know it's a sedentary nerd thing they're doing." Bleh.

On the other hand, Reaper didn't need to blast the nerd credentials of the characters all over the screen. It was soaked in loserness, and some of the credit for that goes to archetypal nerd Kevin Smith. I really hope the show uses the pilot as a template, as it worked so well and rang so true.

sjwoo said...

I haven't seen a single episode of the OC, so I can't comment on Schwartz outside of Chuck. Though the evils of the network brass seem to know no bounds -- check out the Duchovny film The TV Set when you get a chance. It's not great, but there are some funny moments and according to Jake Kasdan, much of what went into the movie has happened to him. Really sad.

Maybe I'm still just high on Knocked Up, a great movie where the lead character is played by a guy who looks, acts, and very much embodies a loser. I think the guy playing Chuck is badly miscast.

johnilf said...

Chuck gets the 'im gonna give this one a bloody good go' thumb up... pick of the bunch has to be Heroes though. I know i said i wouldn't give this season a shot and i nearly switched it off and threw my computer out of the window again until the last 2 mins when i figured it all's a comedy! How else can you explain the hilarious scenes acted out in 'Cork' Ireland. Those accents, jaysus i nearly choked on me lucky charms. A comedy i tells ya.