Wednesday, 10 September 2008

The 2007-2008 Caruso Awards (The Bad)

First I hit you all up with the shiny side of my two-headed coin, compelling me to give up much love to those shows that made my heart soar this last year, but now that coin has landed on its nasty scarred side, and I am forced by my innate sense of cosmic balance to point my finger at those hours of TV that offended unto my very core. That pain, so crippling to me, must be expunged somehow, and this list is my preferred method of self-exorcism. Please indulge me while I carp.

10. Lost - Ji Yeon

It gives me zero pleasure to put an episode of Lost on this list, especially one that featured a wonderful and emotionally exhausting performance from Yunjin Kim, but there is no getting past the fact that the entire episode is based around a silly narrative trick employed merely to distract the audience enough to bring out a big shock at the end. Being well made and well acted is not enough, as rewatching this episode has shown how empty that flashback/forward trick is. While Lost has certainly messed around with the audience before, using our expectation against us as a judo wrestler uses the weight of the opponent against him/her, this episode was blatantly a big nothing wrapped in a trick bow. To add insult to injury, the other big shock of the episode was the reveal of Michael as the Kahana crewmember doing Ben's bidding. As Harold Perrineau's name had been in the credits all season without him appearing once, no one could possibly have been fooled.

9. Dexter - See-Through

There are many things that mystify us, but the critical and popular success of Dexter is high up on the list of most baffling events ever. Watching the second season has taken us almost a year, with each new episode annoying us so much we decide against watching any further and yet are forced to struggle on just to clear space on the Sky+ box. Sometimes all it takes to piss us off is the first couple of lines of each episode's voiceover, which removes all subtlety from the show and in its place gives us some cringeworthy psychological drivel that could only come from the mind of someone who has done nothing but read bad crime novels their whole life. No other "quality" cable show on TV has so little respect for the audience, drowning out all thought or interpretation with a barrage of exposition, moralising, and primary-school level philosophical meanderings. Dexter is perhaps the least mysterious and most predictable character on TV, which makes following his adventures utterly tiresome.

To make things worse, though we suspect that removing that redundant voiceover would significantly improve the show, even then it would still have some of the most unappealing characters on TV. Grumpy Doakes the Grumpy Grumpy Cop, the vile worm Masuka (whose dialogue is a series of variations on, "I'd buy that for a dollar!!!"), Dexter's relentlessly aggressive sister Debra, the hapless Secret-loving Angel, duplicious Rosie-Perez-voice-clone LaGuerta, Rita the constantly peeved girlfriend; I appreciate that there is much to be made of including unlikeable characters in a show (some of our favourites are littered with unpleasant people), but these aren't interesting character studies. They're just a bunch of annoying jerks, all of whom are as boring as sand. So why choose this episode? Because it introduced another show Gupta (Rita's horrible mom, a caricature of a meddling mother), and cemented our dislike of Dexter's Narcotics Anonymous sponsor Lila, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl with a criminal mind and an over-enunciation habit. I'll get to her soon, time permitting.

8. Heroes - Cautionary Tales

In other internet venues, SoC contributor Masticator has plowed a lonely furrow, arguing that the second season of Heroes, which had attracted so much vitriol, was about the same as the first season, quality-wise, if a little worse for not having a stand-out episode like Company Man, which featured highly in last year's Caruso Awards. While I've already railed against the show for having a very disappointing sophomore season, I'm not sure I articulated it fully. It can be summed up like this; all of the suspicions I had that the boldness of the storytelling masked a deeply stupid, derivative concept and some equally shaky execution were confirmed in the second season, which not only failed to deliver on the promise of the first season, but damaged it terribly by shooting off in different directions, none of which were particularly interesting, all the while doing very little to entertain (for a show about superheroes, no one did anything superheroic except for DL). The occasionally histrionic performances ran riot, characters died like punks for no apparent narrative or logical reason (RIP DL, the true hero!!!), allegiances changed over and over again (what the hell is Suresh thinking from scene to scene, let alone episode to episode?), and so much endless, formless, pointless dialogue poured from our TV that by the midpoint of the strike-truncated season I had completely lost the thread of what was going on.

I'm no dummy, but I honestly had no clue what was happening by the final few episodes. Motives were explained so sketchily that I felt like giving up on the whole thing numerous times. All of this is before we get to the other, well-trodden complaints about the season; Hiro's ridiculous Japanese adventures, the wasted new characters, the similarities between the big arcs of this season and last season, the Hoirish Ghangsturrs frrrrrom Cork don't yer know begorrah, and the inability of the showrunners to capitalise on the strengths of the cast (especially Adrian Pasdar, whose saltiness was a refreshing change from all of the portentous performances from everyone else). The badness was spread so thinly across the whole season that picking the worst episode is hard, so I've plumped for this one, partially because it was so memorably over the top (that over-director Greg Yaitanes again), but mostly because the gulf between the epic ambitions of the showrunners and the silly, undramatic, kinda ridiculous end product is made glaringly apparent here. It was a fun episode to watch, but it broke the show for us. Masticator may be right. The second season might not be that much worse than the first season. The problem is, as I said at the time, the first season hinted that, once it had found its footing, the show might have been brain-fodder as well as nerd-fodder. After this episode aired, I gave up that dream and figured it would be CSI: Miami with metahumans. Which is fun in its own right, but still a disappointment.

7. Doctor Who - Voyage Of The Damned

Thus far every season of the New Who has had a stinker at some point, an episode of depressing stupidity that taints the whole run. The latest season, number four, was mediocre at worst, with the Sontaran two-parter representing the season's nadir (unless you are Masticator and have an aversion to adorable little creatures made of fat). That was merely boring, a crime that is forgivable when Who usually has so much enjoyable energy to spare. However, Who season four merely dodged a bullet; there was a truly dreadful episode aired prior to that season, and it was watched by a huge portion of the British viewing public. Russell T Davies' Christmas special was an indulgent abomination, with the stunt-casting of the mysteriously popular Kylie, who killed every single one of her lines, being only one of a number of egregious failings. If the repeated angelic and messianic metaphors weren't enough to wreck the show, the hammy performances were. Guest actor Clive Swift got lucky, though. His teeth-grating and florid line-readings would have been the worst thing about the entire regrettable endeavour if RTD hadn't thought it a wizard idea to have the Queen running around Buckingham Palace in robe and slippers. It almost made me a Monarchist out of sympathy. The disastrous exercise in condescension was almost Torchwoodian in its dedication to barrel-scraping.

6. Chuck - Chuck Versus the Truth

The titling conceit on Chuck is that each week, faux-nerd Chuck is put in opposition to something. It's a semi-comedic method of naming the episode, as mannered as Seinfeld's simple The [Something] titles, or Friends' The One With [The Something]. This episode, which I again had stern words about earlier, was the only time in the first season Chuck went up against a concept, though sadly it wasn't the right one. Perhaps Chuck Vs. The Patience of the Audience would have been more accurate. Riddled with the usual uncertain performances, re-re-rehashed plots, poorly filmed action, and flat dialogue, this installment compounded those Chuckian standards with some egregious plot errors so glaring that the entire crew must have been asleep while filming to have not noticed it. If NBC's cancellation of Journeyman wasn't already galling enough, the renewal of this vapid atonal tripe is salt in the wound. Perhaps this is more entertaining than a broken TV, but surely only because Adam Baldwin is in it. Even with his talent involved, Chuck is an insult to pop culture itself.

5. Dirty Sexy Money - The Italian Banker

An expensive, major network show with a starry cast, lots of promotion, and a writing staff that included writers from Six Feet Under, Lost, and Veronica Mars, this should have been a home run, but alarms were ringing after the pilot ran on the spot for 42 minutes with no character, line of dialogue, or event generating enough energy to imprint itself on my memory. It didn't get any better. As my previous comments have shown, the writing was pitched at a mid-afternoon soap level, with only the production values and relentless winking of the actors to differentiate it from The Bold and the Beautiful. While Ugly Betty (when operating at full power) perfectly understands how to satirise trashy soap stylings while revelling in their excesses, Dirty Sexy Money didn't seem to have a handle on how to maintain a consistent tone. Switching from fluffy to dramatic with a grinding of narrative gears is bad enough, but there was nothing else going on to distract the viewer from this clumsiness. This episode was only marginally worse than all of the others, thanks to some startlingly bad dialogue, worn out plot threads from numerous other shows and films, and obsequious product placement for Bulgari, but the entire show was flawed from conception.

4. Ugly Betty - Giving Up The Ghost

Debate has raged between the contributors to this blog as to which Ugly Betty episode was the weakest. Masticator and Canyon have maintained that the Wicked advert called Something Wicked This Way Comes was the worst, and given that that despicable nonsense insulted Ray Bradbury with its name, I very seriously considered adding it to the list. However, the painful memories of Giving Up The Ghost are still raw, so I'll have to plump for it. Featuring the same kinds of broad caricature, feeble dialogue, scenery-chewing performances, cliche-strewn plots, and misunderstanding of tone as your average episode of Dirty Sexy Money (a crime considering Ugly Betty usually gets the tone spot-on), it also included a career-worst guest appearance by Eliza Dushku, and brought about the necessary but frustrating separation of Wilhelmina from the Mode offices. That, in turn, split Marc from Amanda, which meant the show suddenly felt like The Venture Brothers without Brock Samson, or 30 Rock without Jack Donaghy. In one fell swoop the episode killed the funny for weeks to come, crippling the show during the latter half of the season. All of these events were overturned eventually, but the ratio of good to bad episodes was in the negative from then on.

3. Bionic Woman - Sisterhood

Oh God, where to begin? I've bitched about many shows here that are often good but had a bad week, or shows that might have seemed promising upon conception but never really gelled once shooting began, or shows that couldn't back up their lofty ambitions, but Bionical Woman represents that rarity in the new Golden Age of TV; an out and out disaster from conception onwards. Nothing, and I mean nothing, about this show worked. The concept, hinting at modern self-awareness and littered with unconvincing tech-speak about such bleeding edge concepts as nanotechnology (ooooOOOOoooohhhh! So futuristical!), was still ridiculous in the way that only 70s sci fi TV can be, and all attempts to update the original show regularly misfired. With the sci fi hook malfunctioning, there was no hope for it anyway, but the poorly sketched mythology, miscasting, lacklustre action, and aversion to originality rendered it particularly dreadful. At its best the show was utterly boring. At its worst, however, it was an unmitigated and hilarious failure. This episode, featuring a regrettable guest appearance by Isaiah Washington, Katee Sackhoff chomping on drywall and furniture in a vague approximation of a tortured soul, and poor Michelle Ryan having to say, "Bring it on, bitch," was the worst example of the whole debacle, and a comedic masterpiece to boot. Highly recommended.

2. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - Two and a Half Deaths

As a successful show progresses, it will either stagnate or become scared of stagnation. CSI, a show that could potentially run forever with careful changes of cast, has dabbled with gimmickry to keep fresh something that doesn't need to be fiddled with. Though some of those tricks have worked well (the Miniature Killer arc, William Friedkin directing an episode, Liev Schreiber's guest appearance), swapping writing teams with the Two and a Half Men showrunners (Lee Aronsohn and Chuck Lorre) is a contender for the worst decision ever made in TV history. What is usually a pretty slick and intelligent piece of TV was instantly transformed into a score-settling grab-bag of cliches, weak jokes, eye-rolling performances, and petty attacks on the writers' former employers on Roseanne and Grace Under Fire. To willfully allow your show, a successful, well-loved work that relies on atmosphere and character acting for its impact, to be hijacked by a couple of giggling twerps with chips on their shoulders and only a vague understanding of what makes CSI work better than any other procedural on TV, is an almost suicidal gesture, and a shocking fuck you aimed at the fanbase. My previous praise for the show still stands, but if anything is going to kill the show, it will be failure of nerve. Stay the course, CSI showrunners.

1. Torchwood - Something Borrowed

Regular readers will not be surprised by the presence of the ever-dire Torchwood, but as with Lost, I had a tough time deciding which episode should represent the show at the top of this list. Contenders included the season opener, with James Marsters failing to make the show's trademark shitty dialogue work, as well as the garbled and shouty finale, and of course Meat, the hilariously misguided animal rights allegory that featured such delights as Ianto's demented taser rampage, Owen's "MERCY KILLING!", and Captain Jack's unforgettable face of empathic pain.

In the end, the right choice had to be Something Borrowed, not just because it represented sci fi at its most fat-headed and amateurish, but because it aired straight after the only episodes in the history of the show that didn't totally suck space ass. Reset was a fun episode that showed a spark of life, and the two subsequent episodes, while not anywhere near perfect, exhibited a willingness to tinker with the format. Regrettably, in a flurry of poorly choreographed gunplay, misjudged humour, and rampant ineptitude, all of that effort was erased, and Something Borrowed returned the show to its default position of Stupidest Thing on TV Not Involving Fearne Cotton, Jimmy Carr, or Simon Cowell. Meat might have been unintentionally funnier, but this made me laugh and depressed me simultaneously. Quite a trick. It's the sort of TV that poisons the soul, dulls the mind, and craps on the heart, and yet it is enormously, unfeasibly successful and adored. Go figger.

I think I might be able to milk this award-giving shtick out a bit further. Hey, it's easier than thinking!

1 comment:

Masticator said...

Hey – I don’t “plow” anything, matey! It's “plough”.

I think the biggest problem I had with the Ugly Betty episode “Something Wicked This Way Comes” was not the shameless plugging of the musical but the realisation that the showrunners have no idea what to do with Betty and Henry together. Happy couples are often problematic for TV shows (cue “drama comes from conflict” truisms) but surely the writers can come up with something better than this tired, laboured farce, which has the effect of turning viewers against likeable actors.

Perhaps they should look to The Office for inspiration, considering it managed to get two characters happily together in season 4 without either of them (a) becoming unbearable or (b) stagnating.

And as annoying as the Adipose were (they really were), I cannot possibly take issue with your choice of that piss-poor Christmas “special” as the worst Doctor Who episode. Ugh.