Saturday, April 14, 2007

Running on Empty: Thoughts on Drive

This is just guesswork on my part, but I imagine that, had the creators of Lost been asked, back when the show was in its embryonic stages, to sum it up in a few words, they would have described it as a scripted Survivor, taking the reality juggernaut's premise--strangers thrown together in an unfamiliar setting--and imbuing it with the one quality that reality TV never quite manages to reproduce--drama. By the same token, Tim Minear and Ben Queen's new series Drive, whose first two episodes aired yesterday in Canada and which has its American premiere on Sunday, seems to be a scripted version of The Amazing Race, the series which seems to have taken Survivor's place in the hearts of reality fans. Like Lost, Drive provides its characters with a more powerful and compelling motive than the chance at a cash prize (although a fantastic payoff awaits the winner of Drive's race) and fifteen minutes of fame. A mysterious, all-powerful, all-knowing Them run the illegal, cross-country road race around which the show revolves, and they are not averse to driving contestants to their deaths, or even orchestrating those deaths. They also occasionally force uninterested bystanders to compete by kidnapping their loved ones--as is the case with the show's main character, Alex Tully (Nathan Fillion), whose wife (a, thus far, woefully underutilized Amy Acker) has been kidnapped by the race organizers.

As a visual artifact, Drive is quite impressive. The production drips with cash, and utilizes seamless CGI to get around the difficulties of shooting in and around moving vehicles. The camera swoops in and out of the various contestants' cars and storylines as they race one another to the daily leg's finish line in what is obviously going to become the show's trademark visual trick, the effectiveness of which is only slightly undercut by the fact that, fantastic premise or no, there's only so much a person can do while also operating a motor vehicle--most of the time, we catch the characters talking on their cell phones. Two episodes into the series, however, we have already witnessed two race scenes--in the pilot, Tully is nearly run off the road by an employee of the race organizers in pursuit of Corinna Wiles, who has inveigled her way into the race by hiding in the back of his pickup; in the second episode, newly-reunited half-brothers Winston and Sean Salazar flex their muscles against the straight-laced, middle-aged John Trimble, who is presumably competing to secure his teenaged daughter's financial future before he dies of a fatal illness--both of them kinetic, pulse-pounding, and almost, though not quite, enough to make us forget the absurdity of the show's premise. Why would anyone expend as much time, effort and money as the race organizers clearly are simply for the thrill of watching a race? There's clearly more to the matter, but after two episodes I still don't find myself intrigued enough to care.

Technically impressive though it is, Drive's look is primarily reminiscent of Pixar's Cars--lots of candy-colored, featureless, molded plastic and chrome; very little texture. I haven't seen Minear's The Inside, but the other two shows on which his reputation is based--Firefly and Wonderfalls--reveled in details. Their sets were cluttered and lived-in. Drive takes place on the open highway and in anonymous motels and public spaces, all sanitized to within an inch of their existence and with barely a grease stain or a fast-food wrapper in sight. There's a corresponding plasticity to the show's dialogue--it isn't until the end of the second episode that we hear a zippy, laugh-out-loud line, and even then it's mostly the actress's delivery that sells it--and even more so to its characters. I'm not a fan of reality TV, a genre whose primary appeal seems to be the self-satisfied thrill one derives from watching unpleasant people be nasty to one another, but there's no denying that your average reality contestant is more lifelike, more real (for a certain definition of 'real') than any of Drive's collection of vacuum-molded mannequins. Nathan Fillion appears to be playing a less emotionally damaged version of Mal Reynolds. In the short run, this is obviously a winning strategy--I can't be the only person who tuned into Drive because of Fillion and Minear's Firefly connection. Being emotionally damaged, however, was a substantial part of what made Mal appealing--the other part being his tendency towards clever quips. Absent both attributes, Alex is basically running on the fumes of Fillion's fan-appeal, and the character needs to grow a personality of its own before they run out.

Still, the bare outlines of somebody else's creation are still a far sight better than the kind of depth Drive's writers have given their female lead (and, I pray God, not Alex's love interest), Corinna. Kristin Lehman, for whom I have a soft spot in memory of her performance as the kickass hacker Esther Narin in the kickass, William Gibson-penned X-Files episode "Killswitch", does her level best to imbue Corinna with some semblance of personality, but the character boils down--as all strong female characters must--to a childhood trauma. Of the rest of the cast, only new mother Wendy Patrakas (Melanie Lynskey), apparently on the run from an abusive husband, stands out, but by the end of the second episode her nice-girl cluelessness (ordered to kill a fellow contestant, she hold the woman at gunpoint and then starts to explain herself, as if there were actually a chance that, once she hears Wendy's sob story, the intended victim will give her the go-ahead to pull the trigger) has already become annoying. The other contestants, who beside the ones already mentioned include an Iraq vet and his wife, and a mother-daughter team (the show's only characters of color and, perhaps not coincidentally, the ones with whom the narrative has thus far spent the least time) tend to run together into a sea of perfectly coifed, poreless faces. The women in particular suffer from this problem--not only do they not have distinct personalities, they don't even have distinct clothing styles. They all look as though they've walked off the cover of last month's Seventeen magazine, as if the show's costumers and stylists truly believe that there's only one way for a woman to be beautiful.

Drive is a Tim Minear show airing on Fox, which means that the odds of it surviving past six episodes are pretty slim. With that in mind, I'll probably keep watching, but unlike Firefly and Wonderfalls I see very little in the show to make its almost inevitable cancellation a tragedy--in the transition from reality TV to the scripted kind, the show's writers seem to have left real life by the wayside--and at least one good reason to hope for that cancellation's swift arrival. I realize that what I'm about to say will make me sound like a fuddy-duddy, and--even worse--like someone who complains when a product does what it said on the tin, but I live in a country with one of the world's highest rates of vehicle-related deaths per capita, so here goes: Drive's glorification of dangerous road behavior borders on the irresponsible. Car chases are a staple of both television and TV, but in Drive they take center stage, week after week, with, thus far, no acknowledgment of the dangers the race poses to its contestants and to innocent bystanders. Here is a brief reminder of what a little inattention, or the belief that a public highway is the same thing as a racetrack, can do to a human body. Wear your seatbelts.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was thoroughly disappointed by Drive's first two hours. Some of it has to do with a personal dissatisfaction with looser, serialized dramas; some of it has to do with the wearying thought of having each episode be about getting to some point in time;-- and some of it has to do the storylines as laid out which are rote in conception and rote in execution.

I'm going to give the show a lot of time to grab me though because not only do I like most of Minear's previous work but because I think this has the broad appeal to stick and Minear has struck as being at his best when he has accumulated some backstory.

>>> I'm not a fan of reality TV, a genre whose primary appeal seems to be the self-satisfied thrill one derives from watching unpleasant people be nasty to one another,

There is reality television that caters for that. But, by the same token, there is science-fiction that caters only for people that like seeing things shot with lasers. The primary appeal of Big Brother can be to watch strange, intimate moments that could appear on, say, The Office where they'd be applauded for their sensitivity. The primary appeal of Survivor can be to watch an enormous convoluted strategy game play out. I enjoy both for those reasons - when players get nasty and resentful my enjoyment is dampened.

S

chance said...

I'm not a fan of reality TV, a genre whose primary appeal seems to be the self-satisfied thrill one derives from watching unpleasant people be nasty to one another

Uh no. Except in the same way that SF is strictly the land of escapism and bug-eyed aliens.

Try again. (I'd offer an actual rebuttal but your "I never watched but this is what I heard" doesn't deserve my effort.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Chance, every time I turn on the television and catch a reality show, I see people being mean to one another or being humiliated or being made to look stupid. I usually can't stand it for more than a few seconds so I change the channel. Every time I hear people talking about their favorite reality shows, I hear them talk about the contestants they're rooting against, the ones whose endurance baffles and, at the same time, exhilarates them by giving them someone to hate. It's entirely possible that there's more to the genre, but nothing I've seen of it so far compels me to make a more thorough investigation.

Niall said...

There's a show called Faking It, which was originally a series but has become more of an occasional event, that I really like. The pitch was "a modern-day Pygmalion", but it isn't just lower-class to upper; my favourite episode, I think, is the one where they trained a classical cellist to fake it as a club DJ. There's the obligatory test judged by a panel of experts at the end, but -- primarily because the participants aren't in competition with anyone else -- I really like it as tv. Almost every other reality show I've seen an episode of, though (and somehow I've managed to see quite a lot, from the competitive dance/fame shows through Big Brother and Castaway to things like Next Top X and The Apprentice) has been exactly what you say, Abigail, ranged on a scale from mildly obnoxious to outright nasty.

Oh, and now that I think of it, I really liked College Girls, although (a) I obviously have a vested interest there, and (b) that's starting to shade into documentary more than reality tv. (I'm assuming "reality tv" involves some element of unscripted action, so something like the Up series and its imitators -- which are usually brilliant -- are definitely documentaries.)

Anonymous said...

Abigail, I suggest that you track down the previous season of the American Survivor - Survivor: Cook Islands. I wouldn't like to lead you to think that the makers of Survivor are noble purveyors of human dignity; they aren't. They are often, though, possessed of a generous spirit and it shines through in that season. Even the reaction to most of the players at TWOP, a website that has spun a cottage industry out of sneering superiority, was positive and, at times, giddy.

I seize up when the genre, and all the genre can be, is dismissed. Some reality shows are highly vulgar but most are simply extended gameshows and within that subset, some are highly sophisticated.

I mean, what would one assume of the sci-fi genre if all one was exposed to was the current television crop? That it's alternately fluffy, goofy or pretentious? Horrible condescenion isn't inbuilt into the 'reality tv' genre itself.

S

Anonymous said...

TWOP, a website that has spun a cottage industry out of sneering superiority,

That really should read "TWOP, a website that has spun a cottage industry out of sneering superiority, mostly"

S

Therem said...

I just watched the first three episodes of Drive and mostly agree with what you say here. However, I thought the deaths of Corinna's parents, as seen in flashback at the beginning of episode two, most definitely made clear the dangers of being in the race. I was surprised at how explicit the scene was actually -- it made me feel ill.

Mark Jones said...

My wife and I watched the two hour premiere--and liked it well enough that we'll be watching the next one tonight (on tivo). But like another show I really, really liked (Dead Like Me) I suspect that I cannot look too closely at the premise--because it won't hold up. Not to mention that the All Powerful Them (tm) are going to get really old, really quickly.

It's amazing how a waitress in the restaurant a participant just happened to select is One of Them. The truck driver who picked up Mal is more plausible--but why they'd be dragging his kidnapped wife all over the country in the back of a truck is beyond me. If they're going for the suffocating feel of The Prisoner, where everyone and everything you encounter is part of the web, well...I don't enjoy suffocating.

I'll watch at least a couple more episodes, but they'd best grab my attention quickly.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I thought the deaths of Corinna's parents, as seen in flashback at the beginning of episode two, most definitely made clear the dangers of being in the race

Yes and no. That scene makes it clear that people die in the race, but the driver who ran Corinna's parents off the road did so deliberately. What I'd like to see is some acknowledgment that if you spend a significant amount of time driving like a maniac on public highways - as Alex does at the end of the third episode, for instance - you will eventually kill someone whether you mean to or not, simply because, even if you happen to be a race driver, the other people on the road mostly aren't.

Niall said...

What I'd like to see is some acknowledgment that if you spend a significant amount of time driving like a maniac on public highways - as Alex does at the end of the third episode, for instance - you will eventually kill someone whether you mean to or not,

Well, they've gestured in this direction simply by having a number of close calls in the first two episodes. I would be astonished if at some point a bystander doesn't get killed, if only because (a) it's the obvious story to tell in a show about driving and (b) this show is so clearly being established as about moral questions -- how far will the contestants go? At the same time, though, I'd be astonished if it happens before the eason finale, because (a) it's the obvious story to tell in a show about driving, and (b) the obvious character to give the story to is Tully -- and you don't want to do that too early.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

they've gestured in this direction simply by having a number of close calls in the first two episodes

But those close calls were only between contestants, right? Which buys into the fantasy that the drivers have total control over their vehicle, that they're only going to hurt someone if they mean to, and that they're only going to hurt the person they're targeting, not the folks on their morning commute or picking up their kids from band practice.

It's the same mindset that shows up in almost every car chase scene ever filmed - the hero is driving like a lunatic, but bystanders always have enough time, agility and presence of mind to get out of his way.

Which is why I doubt that we'll ever see a non-contestant hurt by the race. Given, however, that the third episode did a bit to address some of my problems with the series, it's possible that the writers will surprise me again.

Niall said...

But those close calls were only between contestants, right?

Well, I can think of at least two points where non-contestant car were scattered over the road: when Tully pulls off from the central reservation in the first episode, and during the car chase in the second episode (just before the boxing-in-by-trucks maneouvre). Haven't watched episode three yet. Yes, so far everyone's got out of the way in time, but again -- I wouldn't expect them to hurt a bystander this early. (Think Faith stabbing the deputy mayor.)

Also:

and a mother-daughter team (the show's only characters of color

And the Salazar half-brother. Not that it makes the show demographically balanced, but they have spent quite a lot of time on him.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I don't think I even noticed the close calls with civilians - which might be an indication of how seriously the writers expect us to take them (the equivalent of a scattered fruit cart), or an indication of how attentively I was watching.

I wouldn't expect them to hurt a bystander this early. (Think Faith stabbing the deputy mayor.)

It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation, though, isn't it? I'd have to believe that the writers take the danger to bystanders seriously in order to anticipate a plotline in which the writers tell me that they take the danger to bystanders seriously. Anyway, we don't have to see anybody splattered over the tarmac for the point to be driven home - a few prominent near-misses might do the trick (continuing the Faith analogy, Buffy makes the observation that Faith is reckless and out of control months before Faith kills the Mayor's aide).

I only noticed it in the third episode, but both of the Salazar brothers are hispanic (as are the actors playing them).

A.R.Yngve said...

"Chance, every time I turn on the television and catch a reality show, I see people being mean to one another or being humiliated or being made to look stupid."

I can only agree...

I'd much rather see a TV show about bringing out the best in people, instead of having them baited against each other like animals.

Niall said...

the third episode did a bit to address some of my problems with the series

Alex Tully is a Jon Courtenay Grimwood protagonist! It all makes sense now.

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