Monday, 22 October 2007

This Week in TV: Week 4

Boy, was a lot of this week TV miserable. I'm not saying it was all bad (though of course some of it was), but in the fourth week, shows either went for pathos or started to introduce darker themes. Perhaps this is something writing teams know about; three weeks of establishing the status quo, then in the fourth week, set up the big problems and season arcs.

The Office
was darker than ever, to the point that it overshadowed the obvious comic highlights (the hilarious conference-room discussion about the difference between whoever and whomever that gave everyone a chance to shine, the visit to Shrute Farms). Nathan Rabin wrote an excellent review of it that hit on a lot of the good points of the show, especially the heartbreaking moment between Jim and Dwight. Having Jim and Pam become his protectors and semi-friends is perfect (Dwight probably did more to bring them together than they realise, just by being the subject of their mockery), as was his post-talk acception/rejection in the office. As for Michael's depression, the show crossed the line between humour and horror, and then edged back again. Just.

I respect the showrunners for doing that, but while watching the show, I just felt horrible. Nice that they're acknowledging the currently miserable lower-middle-class job situation, though. I get the feeling they've all been reading Joshua Ferris' excellent novel, And Then We Came To The End, which is the tragic comedy to The Office's funny tragedy (or are they the other way around?). There has already been a plot about redundancy with the branch shutdown arc, but while that hung over the first couple of seasons like a dark cloud, there was no way the showrunners could go through with it without ending the show. This is a more viable way to address the uncertainty of the US job market and the stagnating economy, and again it shows how ambitious the show is. A simple sitcom about office politics this is not, but then if you watch the show you already know that.

Ugly Betty
also dropped the Sword of Damocles on a relationship that appears to have been doomed from the start. Though the episode featured many hilarious moments (my favourite being Amanda's declaration, "You were all at Studio 54 that night and I will find that Tweetie Bird if I have to search all of your asses!"), Henry finally found out that he was indeed the father of Charlie's baby, which surely finishes that arc off, or at least deals the fatal blow. The final scene, with Henry and Betty trying to come to terms with this news, hit hard, possibly because it was coming off the back of Justin's descent into inept machismo, and Wilhemina's plotting to destroy Mode.

Man, writing that out makes it seem like a bunch of frothiness, but in fact it was a real downer. The events might seem trivial, but the tone of the show darkened considerably. We were not left with the usual post-Betty glow. This is not a criticism. It was still great stuff, and Oh My God! Victor Garber! +100000 points for finding a role for the long-missed Spy-Daddy.

Speaking of post-Alias TV, to a certain extent Chuck tried to get in on the miserablism with a subplot about Sarah grieving for her dead boyfriend as well as bemoaning her lost identity and spyness, but it's not really a smart enough show to make it work (yet; it could still improve, after all). Yvonne Strahovski is possibly a better actress than it seems here; it's not like she's got good enough material to work with. Nevertheless, for the first time she was asked to do more than just kick women in the face while wearing a short skirt (though that did happen as well), and the moment fell flat, not because she's not up to it, but because the show is asking us to care about a relationship between a hott female spy and an absent, dead, hott male spy partner. He's not onscreen, and was only in the show for a couple of minutes in the first episode (mostly as a stuntman) and yet he looms over both Sarah and Chuck in a way that falls flat because we have no memory of him the way they do.

As a result, we don't care that he upset Chuck, and we don't care that Sarah still loves him. It's asking us to care what the dead spy did, but to the audience he's just that free-running guy who was nothing more than a very agile inciting incident. Perhaps the nerds in the audience can remember back to similar experiences of jock humiliation from their college days, and perhaps the female members of the audience can relate to Sarah because their boyfriend was similarly killed for trying to email secrets to someone outside the government, but that's at a remove. The show is trying to run before it can walk. It's a light, slightly entertaining spy show. It's not drama. Maybe eventually, but not now. Again it made me pine for Alias, which did that stuff amazingly well, but it also made me pine for the first season of The O.C., because that also did pretty much everything right (for a while, at least). This is just landing with a dull thud every week. Thank God NBC have commissioned Bionical Woman as well. That saves it from the ignominy of being the season's worst new show. I'll get to that pile of crap later.

Sorry to keep comparing Chuck to Reaper, but they are vying for the same nerd audience, and while Chuck feels like the major label release by a band who have already had a critically lauded number one album on a smaller label, only to fall foul of sophomore slump, Reaper is the ambitious debut of a plucky indie band. Well, an indie band while making their first couple of singles who get signed up to release their album on a subsidiary of a different major label, like when Warner made that Sub-Pop-emulating mini-label that included Mudhoney on its roster for a while. Gah! You know what I mean!

Anyway, Reaper was, again, very entertaining, though signs of Andi becoming the show's weak link are starting to show. What is her purpose again, other than to be the object of desire? They need to give her something to do other than be cute and unattainable. Missy Peregrym was nowhere near as dull as this when she was on Heroes. We need to see some of that fire again. Oh, and finally making The Devil more than just a trickster, and hinting at more depth to the central premise by introducing the battle between him and Sam over the contract? Excellent. Heart Ray Wise! How easy it is for that adorable smile to go very very bad.

CSI may not have had the melancholy air of the other shows, but with episode four there were set-ups for the season arc. At least I assume they were. CSI has been the classic example of how one-off procedural shows can still exist and work brilliantly in a long-form world that has seen many story-of-the-week shows deemed obsolete. Every week a new case is introduced, and at the end the case is solved (most of the time). Last season, however, saw the show bring in the excellent Miniature Killer arc, which popped in and out of the procedural, often to devastating effect (as I've said before, Monster in the Box might be the single best episode of CSI ever). This season, the producers have hinted that there would be something similar introduced, but if this episode is anything to go by, it won't be a single criminal, but an ongoing case against a water-processing plant. I hope other fans are as excited about that as I am. It would be Erin Brockovich with less biker beards!

At least I hope that's where they are going with this. The episode was filled with some really crappy deductive work by our heroes, for the first time in CSI history. They were investigating the death of a boy suffering from gynecomastia working at a water treatment plant hanging around with a scientist investigating large quantities of hermaphroditic fish swimming in a local lake, a death that could just as easily have been suicide as murder? The team don't spot the connection straight away, and instead chase disgruntled co-workers for most of the episode. It was odd to see our heroes be inept for the first time ever. If this is the season arc, it at least explains why the show slowed down so much, and had so much exposition. If it's set-up, then it was ponderous, but I understand. If not, then it was just a disappointing episode. Featuring an ugly and yet somewhat charming hat.

To a certain extent, that is. It also featured some great material. CSI: Miami is notoriously stupid, featuring either stock plots or outrageous melodrama in the place of actual crime scene analysis. The original show, thankfully, is proud to have science as its main focus, and this episode featured a lot of it. What with the water treatment plant investigation, Hodges pioneering a new technique and vowing to write a paper about it, and Gil's ongoing investigation into worldwide bee population decrease (something that only hit the mainstream media a couple of weeks ago), it's plain that the show is not shying away from giving scientists their due. Read enough paranoid books and features on Dawkins and his atheist cohorts, and you fear that science and rationalism is on the outs. CSI made me feel safe that somewhere in the mainstream, a rational outlook is still treated as beneficial. It's also edumacational; don't pull bee stings out of your skin as it releases the venom. You should scrape them out instead.

Best of all this week was the totally out-of-the-blue marriage proposal scene, with Gil (hilariously wearing his old woman hat over the top of his bee mask) just dropping the question into normal conversation. Often in story-of-the-week shows, the characters are merely redundant exposition devices, but this show manages to tease out tiny bits of information about its cast of characters in the most subtle ways. We know they have a backstory only because we pay attention to the details. It's very rare that an episode will focus on their personal lives; Catherine's family being the only recurring instance of plots based around her, but they're almost always fascinating, especially when her sadly-deceased dad Sam Braun is involved. Instead we get little windows into their lives, like the endearing revelation that Greg is writing a book on Las Vegas history. In CSI: Miami, if a character has a life outside their work, it usually involves sex or relationships. In the original and best, it involves little character details like that. Man, this show really does feature some of my favourite character writing.

The Gil-Sara romance is a case-in-point. They've been dating for ages, and now they're getting married. While other shows would make a big deal about it, here it happened in the middle of the episode without any warning or fanfare. It made it all the more touching, and cheered us both up considerably, after the misery of the other shows. Shame she's only in the show for a little while longer. It does not bode well for their future.

Beyond the sadness and the arc establishment, this week also saw Dirty Sexy Money finally not totally suck. It was by no means a triumph (God no), and Canyon couldn't even brave it (I think she was wise to; I'm only sticking with it out of stubbornness), but while the plots are unoriginal (school bullying, marital strife, affairs, jealousy), at least the dialogue had improved massively since last week. I know I'm being partisan and forgiving because of the connection to an old favourite, especially as the episode had two writers credited and not just one, but when Veronica Mars ace Diane Ruggiero's name appeared in the credits, hope sprang up. I was rewarded with two good scenes. The main one had Donald Sutherland acting the paint off the walls as he confronts the duplicitous Jill Clayburgh. Finally some life! Shame that the increase in emotional truth came at the expense of revelation. Instead of Clayburgh revealing which of the Darling children was fathered by Peter Krause's dad, we got an exchange that went something like:
Sutherland: Will you tell me?
Clayburgh: I will tell you!
Sutherland: Will you?
Clayburgh: Yes, I will!
Sutherland: Really? Because I really want to know!
Clayburgh: Yes!
[Cut to commercial]

I get that not immediately revealing who is lacking Donald Sutherland's DNA is a way of creating tension in the family, and leaves the room open for a big revelation later in the series, but it just sounded laboured and mechanical. Also good was Zoe McClellan (whose boobs made a startling return in several scenes) confronting Natalie Zea over her previous relationship with Krause.

As far as I'm concerned, the only interesting plot is between Nick and his wife, and the threat of his work and past coming between them. Again, it's nothing new, but the Darlings are odious enough to give the marriage plot some heft. It would be horrible for their relationship to be broken up by such a bunch of poorly written, illogical caricatures. Plus, it's much more intriguing than the endless and record-breakingly tedious rivalry between Samaire Armstrong and Seth Gabel's girlfriend. I'm so uninterested I can't be bothered to Google the name of the actress. Sorry, miscellaneous actress. I'm sure you're a lovely person but life is short. Blame the show writers and your life-sappingly dull character, okay?

Seriously, this shit has been going on for three episodes and each week it feels like ten minutes of footage has been accidentally edited in from another show. This show is run by Craig Wright? Who worked on Lost and Six Feet Under? How is this kind of glaring mistake possible? Showrunners! It's killing the show! Drop it now! You just got a week reprieve by adding a shout-out to Explosions in the Sky and hiring Erick Avari (this week playing an Italian. Or a British spy. I wasn't paying much attention). Don't blow this tiny bit of goodwill now.

Also very much improved was Pushing Daisies, which was not just tolerable (see above), but actively entertaining. A lot of the flaws are still there and are obviously never going to go away, and dear God, someone tell the showrunners that they don't have to end their episodes with scenes as showy and silly as that ineptly staged sword fight, but my own personal bugbear (that damnable Sonnenfeld) was absent for much of the episode. While there was still the relentless dollying and repetitive compositions, a lot of the show was simply shot and worked very well. Amazing how distracting it is when a director is shouting, "This is one of my signature shots, bitches! I won't stop until Sonnenfeldian is in the dictionary!!!"

Everything that has almost been working (notably the tone and a lot of the humour) finally came off once the distracting frippery went down a notch, and as a result I could relax and enjoy (Canyon is yet to be convinced, I think). Also great was the resolution of some plots much earlier than expected. Chuck knows about the deadly ramifications of her resurrection, and Olive and her Cleavage of Mass Distraction (seriously, the camera won't stop staring) suspects something is up with Chuck's appearance at the Pie-Hole. I thought that stuff would come up later, once more one-off mysteries were solved, but we're rattling through plot options at a faster pace that expected. This either means there is more to the central premise and Ned's powers than expected, or they're going to have O.C. Syndrome, with all of their good ideas burnt out after one season. Fingers crossed it's the former.

I'm afraid to say that while pretty much every show we watched this week shook up their game after a start-of-season warm-up, Bionical Woman remains the low point of the TV week. There are new writers coming in, and NBC are obviously committed to the show, but will they bother to make it good and popular instead of lazy and popular-enough-to-get-by? I'll stick with it in case it does suddenly improve in quality, like, a thousand-fold, but until then we're forced to put up with writing, acting and directing that would have shamed the silly 70s original. Though at least this version did feature Jaime kicking the homophobe across the room a couple of times.

That was kinda fun. Apologies for linking to the AV Club again, but Sean O'Neal skewers everything that is wrong with the show much more succinctly than I can. The only interesting thing brought up by this episode was the curious moment where the brat sister sleeps through a car alarm outside. The pilot originally featured Mae "AnnHog from Arrested Development" Whitman as Jaime's deaf sister, but it was changed after testing badly (dammit!). Does this scene hint that her sister is going deaf? It would make sense after the comments about the possibility of congenital disease in the Summers family tree last week. Perhaps the showrunners had an arc about deafness and bionical implants in mind. That would be interesting. Other than that, only counting Katee Sackhoff's use of the following expression is keeping us diverted during the show.

As for the other shows this week, Friday Night Lights is still the highlight, even with the horrid muder plotline, but that has been subsumed, at least for now. 30 Rock was not as good as last week, but that is no criticism, considering how good that episode was. The funniest moment of the week came during The Peter Serafinowicz Show, but I'll leave that for Canyon to talk about. Also on BBC was the new series of Heston Blumenthal: In Search of Perfection, featuring everyone's favourite baby-faced cooking savant, which I had been looking forward to. Just to be really annoying, our Sky+ box decided to delete it after it had recorded. If anyone reading this has a Sky+ box, I strongly suggest you renew the warranty after a year. These damnable things fall apart quickly.

Angered by this, we decided to give the BBC's much vaunted iPlayer a try, seeing as how it allows you to watch certain shows up to a week after they have aired. It's supposed to be easy to use, but it took forever to install the player (for a long time we couldn't as there were "technical difficulties" on their end), and when we finally had, and had downloaded the episode (which took ages), it played for about 4 minutes and then offered up a series of randomly selected freeze-frames with a voice over. Okay, we have a crappy laptop that sometimes freezes up when we're using Winamp, but yesterday it was working fine. Only iPlayer malfunctioned. So I don't get to see the damn show. If the BBC is going to have to show more repeats now, can it hurry up? I'm sick of missing stuff.

Other shows we didn't watch but will eventually; Dexter, Journeyman (apparently saved from cancellation for a little while), Viva Laughlin (the worst show ever made, from what I've heard. Can't wait!), and Mad Men. We're very behind on that, and will get around to catching up, especially as the season finale appears to have blown everyone's mind. It didn't appeal to us much early on (we get that things were different back then, so please stop showing lots and lots and lots of smoking), but we're willing to give it another try. It may have improved. Tell Me You Have Suddenly Started To Love Me is a case in point. The show format did not appeal to us at all, but slowly we've come to look forward to it every week. Not much has changed, but with enough care and attention to character growth and gentle, Lost-paced revelation, it has snagged us. That's not to say it's amazing, but we've still turned a corner on it, and if anyone asks for a recommendation we will give it (though stressing how long it takes to grab the imagination). That said, what did they do to Ronny Cox?

My heart sank a little when I saw him. He looks like a 900-year old hobo! Let's hope it's his character and not something more serious. Here is where I would put a sad-faced emoticon, if I were so inclined.


sjwoo said...

Due to baseball over here in the States, we haven't seen much regular TV, missing both The Office and 30 Rock, so we'll be looking forward to it.

Are Canyon's fingers numb from all the Guitar Hero playing? Haven't read a word in almost two weeks, so we're trying not to feel abandoned. Rockstar ported Table Tennis to the Wii, so I've been playing that. Unfortunately, it can't hold a candle to Wii Sports Tennis. Not a bad game, but they really missed the boat with the controls.

Canyon said...

I am here, just lazy. (And yes, typing-impaired from Guitar Hero. I feel like I should know how to play guitar now from all the effort I put into it.) I didn't realize it had been so long -- I might post something later today, so all my fan(s) out there, watch this space.