Monday, 15 October 2007

This Week in TV: Week 3

Writing enormous TV posts like this make me feel like Tolstoy, if Tolstoy was obsessed with blogging about how crap Bionic Woman is? Playing Guitar Hero II has taken over our lives to such an extent that we're only now finishing up last week's TV, but still I soldier on. I'd drop some of these shows in order to have some room to do other things, but if the rumours about poor old Journeyman are true, our viewing list might already be about to shrink anyway.

Perhaps I should start with the good news; 30 Rock's very funny pilot was eclipsed by the magnificent second episode, a half hour so packed with jokes that it left us happily confused and breathless after just a few minutes. Tracy, Liz and Jack were all back to their best after an uncertain start, and Kenneth the Page was on fire, especially trying to seduce Tracy's wife. Best of all was the return of Will Arnett, now in the closet thanks to his involvement with the Church of Practicology, the religion invented by Stan Lee. Sorry, the alien king living inside Stan Lee. If Arnett was a recurring character, and NBC could stop trying to hawk t-shirts featuring jokes that haven't been featured on the show by the time the ad appears at the bottom of the screen, this would be the best show ever made. As it is, even taking that into account, it was the highlight of the week by a mile.

That's not to say there wasn't other good stuff out there. CSI, House, Ugly Betty, and Friday Night Lights were all at their best, or close to it. Sadly, many of the new shows are going horribly wrong, to the extent that we're beginning to think we were sold some horrible lemons. Whereas my doubts about the last couple of new seasons have quickly been allayed by the range of new shows, my hopes for this season have been dashed horribly. Of course, I'm aware that it's early days for everything, and there is always room for improvement.

For example, Chuck was certainly better than it has been (and Reaper was less so, making me wonder if there is some kind of seesaw of quality thing going on, in which case please stop it, shows), but Dirty Sexy Money and Bionical Woman were stultifying. The former is off Canyon's watch list, and the latter is almost off mine. They soiled almost everything else we watched just by being watched on the same machine.

Dirty Sexy Money
, in particular, is just horrible. No longer shall I call it Dirty Stupid Monkey, as it doesn't deserve an affectionate nickname. So many things were wrong with the latest episode that I don't even know where to begin. The stupid bouncy-bouncy music that keeps popping up throughout, skewing the tone towards comic even when Peter Krause and Donald Sutherland (the only good thing about it) are discussing murder and betrayal; the stupid promotional considerations (I get that Bulgari sponsored this week's show, but forcing the mention into the show by having Billy Baldwin's big speech be conducted in a Bulgari shop was just stupid); Krause's bemused reactions to all of the "wacky" "shenanigans" of this "off-the-wall family". Canyon pointed out that she's so glad to see a happy Krause after being miserable, tortured Nate Fisher for five seasons of Six Feet Under, and she has a very good point, but this relentless chirpiness has begun to grate faster than John Krasinski's smirks at the camera in The Office. Actually, four seasons in and that still doesn't annoy me.

Krause's "OMG you sure are a freak" eye-rolling would be justified if anything in the show was actually outrageous, but for a show about a larger-than-life influential family dominating New York and being obsessively watched by the media, they're all pretty dull people, and their arcs so far are narcoleptic (Jeremy is in a relationship with someone his sister doesn't like! That's the definition of dramatic magic). Only Billy Baldwin's love affair with a transexual works, and that's because it's actually very sweet and not played for forced laughs, even though he himself is. Actually, everyone is, except for Peter Krause, Zoe McClellan, Donald Sutherland and Jill Clayburgh, who are so far removed from the monotonous and unamusing silliness polluting the rest of the show that they might as well be in a different programme.

Even worse than some of the casting (Natalie Zea, Seth Gabel, and Samaire Armstrong are all dreadful and annoying), is the lack of imagination on every level. The AV Club are blogging relentlessly about the new season, and whether story-of-the-week storytelling (Reaper, Chuck) has any place on TV now that we've been blessed with a newfound confidence in the commercial viability of long-form storytelling (Lost, The Wire). Dirty Sexy Money seems to be getting a break from them simply because it is built to work well as long-form, with multiple story possibilities thrown up by the large and controversial Darling dynasty, their internal and external rivalries, and the murder of Krause's father. And Samaire Armstrong's piss-poor approximation of the Paris Hilton it's okay to love. If you find selfish vacuity amusing or endearing, that is.

That's all well and good, but if the storytelling is bad, who cares how many story possibilities there are. The direction is flat and unoriginal; a scene early on in the third episode where Krause interrogates the younger Darlings about a sex tape and we see a montage of them appearing in front of him with "wacky" responses was embarrassing, tired, and poorly choreographed. The dialogue is even worse. When it's not doling out pointless exposition (the first scene repeating everything that was in the Previously On just three seconds earlier was the worst), it deals almost exclusively in cliches. Here are some choice examples:

Patrick: What part of "no" do you not understand?

Nick: We just assumed.
Patrick: Well, there it is, Nick. You assume, you make an ass out of you and me.

Juliet: (to Jeremy, on the phone) I've left, like, three messages!
Jeremy: (tied to a bed) Sorry, I've been kinda tied up.

Patrick: How many people get life right?
Nick: I don't know. But I do know, tomorrow's another day, another opportunity, another chance.
Patrick: I like that! (adds empty cliches to speech)

These are the jokes (and the morals), folks. How can empty, first-draft dreck like that get on air any more? We've been spoiled by The Sopranos and The Wire and Deadwood, and now expect the same care and detail in all dialogue on TV. Okay, those are HBO shows, and this is network, but if Lost and Veronica Mars and Friday Night Lights and Ugly Betty (at its best) and especially House can pull off dialogue of such a high-calibre, then so can DSM. It certainly needs it, because it has nothing else to offer. Nothing. It is truly dire. I even started wishing for John From StinkyNasty to come back, simply because even at its worst it could still sound so great and different (Ed O'Neill's scenes in particular could be lots of fun). DSM represents a retrograde step for The New TV, and must be stopped. Or improved drastically. Getting rid of the "Rebecca Colfax, Darling family publicist" running joke would be a good start. 30 Rock did it properly with Emily Mortimer's "I'm Phoebe, you might not remember me, we met in the gallery, I'm engaged to Jack, I have avian bone syndrome" joke.

I'm torn as to whether it was worse than Bionical Woman, which plumbed new depths this week. Worst moments included the girly dance bonding scene between Jaime and her brat sister (shown above, ringed by Sarah Corvus' evil optical interface), Miguel Ferrer trying to hide behind his desk so everyone forgets he's in the show, hacking internal circuitry by thinking hard, plot illogicalities like Sarah teaching Jaime how to do said hacking after they've been tracked several times instead of before, risible sub-plots about babysitting designed to give Jaime someone to fight in the "Insert fight scene here" slot towards the end of the show, and many many many many many more moments. And oh, God, if you thought the dialogue above was bad, check these pearls out:

Ruth: (to Jonas after he fools a lie detector) We've gotta find a way to teach this. How do you do it, anyway?
Jonas: I've been married. [Zing!]

Sarah: (appearing in a dream sequence for some reason) We're the only two people with sub-retinal charged coupling devices implanted in our optic nerves, but our human brain still filters out things it doesn't want to see. Don't let it. See everything. (cue mini-montage of Jaime looking around)

Jonas: I want her under lockdown now. I want this entire organisation on full alert. I want Corvus found and brought in, dead if necessary.
Nameless goon: (fondles gun suggestively) Roger that.
Jonas: I want her streaming optical interface tracked permanently, I don't wanna make a move unless we know when, where and why.

Jonas: (to Jamie) If Sarah Corvus wants something, she'll pretty much tear through a wall to get it. Just make sure that wall isn't you. (Cut to montage of Sarah working out by punching a wall to pieces with her bionical fists)

Jaime: (during another training montage) I guess I'm not used to thinking of myself as artificially intelligent.
Jae: That's not what I said. I said part of your programming includes artificial intelligence. The ability to learn. And more important, to unlearn. (Hey Ponytail Variant Yoda, guess what; people do that without chips in their brain! You've been in your underground bunker for too long, dude.)

Mysterious Homophobe from Grey's Anatomy
: (during yet another goddamn training montage) You think Sarah Corvus is gonna bring gloves to a fight. No, something tells me she's gonna leave her little pads at home. What we need to find out is the animal. Now we all know that if your training is worth a damn, by now I should be able to take this crowbar and be able to swing it as hard and fast as humanly possible and not get within an inch of you. That's right, boys and girls. I'm about to get analogue on your ass. So whaddaya say, Summers. You ready to find the animal?
Jaime: Bring it on, bitch.
::Mysterious Homophobe swings crowbar exactly as hard as he promised to not ten seconds ago, just missing Jaime as she dodges::
Jaime: Are you insane?!??!?!?!

It's not just the appalling dialogue. The best thing I can say about Michelle Ryan is that her accent is absolutely flawless. I've completely forgotten she's English, and she seems to have forgotten her time here too. Wasn't she supposed to be really good in EastEnders? I remember her being not that brilliant in Jekyll, but then she was often onscreen with The Nesbitt in full ham-chewing mode and most actors would disappear into the wallpaper around that display. As for Katee Sackhoff's totally abstract performance as an evil (or is she??!?!) bionical woman, she's entertaining, but for all the wrong reasons. When the best thing about your show is the worst thing about another show (I'm no fan of Starbuck), you're in trouble. Her eye-rolling, quietLOUDquiet linereadings, and gurning have been fun, though.

As I said earlier, new shows have a choice to make; "worthy" long-form, "unworthy" plot-of-the-week, or a mixture of the two. Bionical Woman is ineptly trying the latter. There are subplots about her health and genetic make-up (there was talk of her grandmother having something wrong with her), and Mark Sheppard as a bad guy (Thomas Kretschmann was in the pilot, but he's vanished now). While that burbles on uninterestingly in the background, we have Jaime punching various un-named men for MacGuffin reasons, and it's not very diverting. Quite the opposite, in fact. It's not quite Torchwood-bad yet, but it's flirting with those depths.

The other two new nerd shows, Chuck and Reaper, are taking the plot-of-the-week template even further. The latter only hints at bigger arcs, such as the death of Andi's father. That might not even be an arc. So far the show seems happy to stay in a formula for the time being, and while it would be nice if the show had greater ambitions than just filling an hour every week, at least it does it with style and humour. Plus, the cast gelled in the pilot, and are getting better every week. Everyone gets the material, from the cast to the producers to the directors and writers. It may not be Buffy-quality, and I strongly doubt it ever will be, but it did something the first season of Buffy did that ensured it had a future beyond plot-of-the-week episodes; it set a tone, and it followed it through. Having a template that you can work from immediately is half the battle, so I'm still hopeful, even though this week was less fun than previous weeks. Anyway, it still has this smile, so it gets a pass.

Other shows introduced this season have been slower to establish a tone and a template, and if Bionical Woman is the worst offender, Chuck is also guilty. It's had a rough ride so far, but this week's episode was the best yet (and just in the nick of time, at least as far as we're concerned). The cast are starting to work out, and the writers are figuring out how to write specifically for them. It even has a little title sequence now, which is nice. Adam Baldwin still shines out, but Zachary Levy is becoming more likeable week by week. I think I even laughed once. Possibly at a bad guy getting hit in the face with a microwave oven. Because my Inner Child is large and in charge.

However, it still bugged me. Again the show put all of the pieces in place for laughs and thrills, but still kept missing the sweet spot over and over again. There was the odd moment where it worked like a charm instead of just hinting that it might work like a charm somewhere down the line, but it tickled at my annoyance synapses anyway. Only later did I realise what it was; it made me miss Alias. If you're going to have a new spy show on TV, you have to be better than the first two seasons of Alias. Chuck is not that good. I mentioned this to Canyon and she pointed out that Chuck is lighter in tone than Alias, and she's right, I'm being a bit unfair. So perhaps I shouldn't compare it to that. I'll compare it to a lighter spy show; Chuck has to be better than the hilarious and supercool first season of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. And again it fails the test. If it becomes its own thing, it could work out really well, but having two spy factions at war with each other, and an ostensibly foxy lady in a short skirt kicking people repeatedly, you're inviting comparisons to a recently screened and superior show that you just can't live up to. Sorry, Chuck.

More long-form drama happened in Heroes, which is playing the long game to such an extent that it feels like nothing will ever be resolved. This is the criticism that is levelled at Lost all the time, but Lost is about the anticipation and the wait and the slow reveal, so complaining about that is like complaining that chocolate tastes too chocolatey. Heroes, on the other hand, is revealing even less, and at a slower pace, and to make things worse, in the place of revelation is a series of ridiculous plot mechanics that, so far, are not at all interesting. The third episode was the best so far this season, but that's not saying much. The Hoirish plot is still risible, but at least Peter got to telekinetically move a truck around. That was fun. As was Claire's Richard-Donner-Supermanesque flight with the obviously superevil flying student guy.

Plus, it's always good to see Zachary Quinto, even without powers, and the nerd in me delighted in the miniature appearance by Nichelle Nichols (who, in my mind's eye, will forever be dancing half-naked in the moonlight, thanks to Star Trek V. Thanks for that, Shatner!). The cliffhanger with the Eighth Painting was great too, but as Canyon said, if they kill off Noah, that's game over for good. The show needs him badly.

Everything else did its thing, and did it well. The Office was mostly hilarious, though still too long and still flirting with over-the-top plots. Michael kidnapping a pizza delivery boy was perhaps a bit too far, but as he was just acting out his anger at that snotty little asshole Ryan, it made some sense. CSI continues to dazzle, this week featuring a guest-starring role for Harold Perrineau, which made me even more eager to see him return to Lost in February. Speaking of Lost, Tell Me You Masturbate Behind Locked Doors During Our Special Half Hour features not just Sonya "Penny Widmore" Walger, but also the newly enskeeved Ian Somerhalder, who does not look good as a hipster douche. Please, someone shave him/ban him from acting.

Now all we need is for Maggie Grace to show up as a love interest and this show jumps 15 levels of awesomeness (to level -18 on the Awesome Scale). Not because I like her, or liked Boone and Shannon. Just, you know, I miss Lost. ::cries::

Actually, we're beginning to enjoy Tell Me The Title Of The Show Again a bit more. It's not that it has changed at all. It's still the same ponderous, self-important, humourless show it started out as, and character development is measured in millimetres-per-episode, but the mood and pace has started to win us over. Yes, it commits all the worst crimes of bad independent cinema, and thinks that the route to dramatic relevance is nothing more than discussing "real" relationship issues in a "real" way, with "real" body parts on display (not counting the plastic dick employed in the first episode), but we're very very very slowly coming to derive some pleasure from it that doesn't involve making fun of it. Some of the bolder choices (the long scenes in the therapy room) are great, and making almost all of the characters unsympathetic is working out much better than expected. Best of all, Carolyn has finally given up on getting pregnant, therefore cutting down on her addiction to peeing on pregnancy tests and having unwatchable flameouts, which means Widmore Laboratories stock is gonna plummet. [/obscure Lost joke]

Another non-network show, Dexter, had its best episode last week, but it doesn't matter much. We're watching just out of obligation now, and if it wasn't for Michael C. Hall and the odd good scene with Julie Benz (now suddenly sticking up for the memory of her evil ex-husband, improbably enough), we'd have dumped it long ago. I'll get into it in more detail some other time, but the main reason we hate it is the ever-present narration, which is either face-slappingly obvious, cliche-ridden, or just badly written. We get that we need to see into the thoughts of Dexter, a character whose onscreen persona is a lie, but the narration often fails so badly that unintentional hilarity is the outcome instead of the blackly comic and piercing look into the heart of darkness that the show strives for. We stuck with it for a while, but one week he said:

Dexter Morgan: I'm not the monster he wants me to be. So I'm neither man nor beast. I'm something new entirely. With my own set of rules. I'm Dexter.

Show instantly broken. The anvilliciousness of it all kills any mood or suspense. It happens at least once a week, and provides a guilty pleasure for us:

Dexter Morgan: My sister doesn't understand me. It's easy for her to laugh and joke with her partners, easy for her to grin from one side of her mouth while eating various types of burrito. I can mimic the laughter, but the thing inside me that makes me laugh is broken. There's no doctor that can fix my laughing chip. It stays that way. I don't laugh. I just watch. I'm Dexter.

Dexter Morgan: Again I get stiffed by the guy who fixed my car. $400 for an oil change? It's criminal. So criminal, perhaps I could feed my hunger by visiting some justice on him. But no. Harry's code prevents me. That's not the way he taught me. I have to leave this guy alone, hope that some other serial killer comes along and chops him up real good and... Oh. Where was I? Getting confused here. Oh, now I remember. I'm Dexter.

Dexter Morgan: I see people go about their days, eating food. I can't eat food the way they do. I'm empty inside. No stomach. So I can't eat. I mean... Hold on. Sorry. No stomach? I'm talking metaphorically here. Of course I can eat food. I'm Dexter.

Thankfully, this week saw the possibility of a workaround; Dexter communing with his dead nemesis, Rudy the Ice-Truck Killer.

Even though Christian Camargo creeped us out, it was good to see him possibly returning in a dream capacity to reduce the reliance on the voiceovers. It's also nice to revisit Six Feet Under's trick of talking to the dead as a way to dramatise a character's inner life. Sadly, in the final scenes, Dexter lays his past to rest, and so next week I assume we're back to square one. Shame. At least Dexter is now in some peril, with his stash of body parts discovered and the loathsome Doakes on his trail, so perhaps the show will become a little more driven, but the supporting cast continue to let the team down. We're nowhere near giving up on it (especially now Keith Carradine is around as a profiler making life tough for Dexter), but it would be nice if it learned from its mistakes a little faster.

We're hoping House is also learning from its mistakes (such as leering at Cuddy, which is what House and Wilson are doing above, the perverts). The first three episodes of season four have been superb, with our anti-hero bouncing off his new retinue to hilarious effect. Of course, with each episode he whittles the size of his team down, so soon we're going to be left with (best case scenario) three new Cottages, or (worst case scenario) the old Cottages, back from exile and newly snotty. In a perfect world we'd keep the large staff. House's major flaw is the immovable and repetitive format, with most of the better episodes playing with that formula as much as the showrunners can. They've written themselves into a metaphorical corner, and the only thing keeping the show from falling into unwatchable irrelevance is this struggle to keep inventing subtle ways to fool the viewer that things are changing. Come on! [/Gob Bluth] Instead of doing that, just go all out. Keep the big staff for a bit longer, and when that starts to pall, change it again. We've still got the procedural investigative work, but with more room for humour. That's when the show works best. Having this new team around has been a real treat, but waiting for the inevitable retcon is frustrating. Damn, loving House is as annoying as it must be to love House himself.

I nearly forgot; Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe was mostly superserious but essential viewing, partly because his excoriating perspective on the news coverage of Madeleine McCann's disappearance was magnificent and rightly furious, but also because it featured a short film by Adam Curtis. His stock tricks were there: superb montage editing; excellent soundtrack choices (tracks from The Fog and Fight Club), sly humour. Sadly, the worst criticism of him is that he simplifies complex issues too much, and five minutes explaining why TV journalism has gone wrong over the past 30 years was just not enough. Still, a little Adam Curtis is better than no Adam Curtis at all, so it was brilliant anyway. If you've not seen his work before, go to these sites to see Century of the Self, and The Power of Nightmares. His other masterwork, The Trap, is available if you dig deep enough. They're the three most important documentaries you'll ever see.

Friday Night Lights
has rebounded from the first episode's terrible plot mistake with some style, though to be honest the best thing I can say about it is that the showrunners are doing the best they can with a large hole in the hull of their ship. It still remains a marvel, though, with the best acting on TV right now. Jesse Plemons and Adrianne Palicki are performing miracles with their silly plot; the final scene horrified and thrilled us in equal measure. Kyle Chandler is the Archduke of Deadpan, and should never be out of work ever again, if there's any justice, and Brad Leland got big laughs, drunkenly making a fool of himself in front of the whole town. Best of all, Connie Britton's Tami is suffering from post-natal depression, and spends the whole episode on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She is utterly convincing, but it's painful to see. Where is her Emmy? Where? Someone give her an Emmy! Or Golden Globe! Do I have to actually construct a Caruso Award and send it to her agent? I'll do it! I've got some glue, and this house is filled with stuff I can mount on a piece of wood. My Wonder Girl action figure? Would that do?

I can't end this post with such a sad image. Ugly Betty is juggling its own formula, cleverly introducing another love interest for Betty before her old love interest leaves the scene. While cutesy Christopher Gorham waits on the sidelines, polar-opposite Freddy Rodriguez is wooing her by, well, being generally obnoxious and rude. He'd piss us off, but we're fans of his work on (this again?) Six Feet Under, so he gets a break for now, but they might be better off dialling down the nastiness just a little. No matter. Even if that goes wrong, we'll still have Michael Urie and Becki Newton as Marc and Amanda. I luffs them almost as much as they luff themselves.

Don't ever change, you vainglorious bitches.


Masticator said...

You are the top Google search result for "bionical woman"! Congratulations.

Is there a proper and less cumbersome name for This Show Will Obviously Have A Built-In Audience And Be Enormously Successful So We Don't Have To Make The Slightest Effort Syndrome? Enterprise Syndrome, perhaps. I hope the same disease does not infect The Sarah Connor Chronicles or, as it has come to be known round our way, The Sarah Conicals.

Admiral Neck said...

You are the top Google search result for "bionical woman"! Congratulations.

I won't let it change me.

The Sarah Conicals (nice) is doomed from the outset by casting the vapid Lena Headey as Sarah Conical. During 300 I had to look away, she was so bad.

That said, I watched The Terminator for the nine millionth time while writing this post (thank you Sky Movies Modern Classics for showing that right after The Conversation!), and it's still a wonderful film. I'll be watching the show. Possibly through my fingers.

Masticator said...

That's odd, because I had heard that 300 was a showcase of exemplary acting from some of our finest living thespians.