- Journeyman: Kevin McKidd is a journalist with a lovely wife and cute kid who begins randomly popping into the recent past. There he encounters his deceased former girlfriend (who, in the present, turns out to be very much alive, though traveling through time just like him) and discovers that it's his job to protect certain people--in the pilot episode, he has to first arrange for the birth, and later protect the life, of a young prodigy. Journeyman has very little but McKidd and its sumptuous production values to recommend it. There's been a glut of high-concept, quasi-SFnal shows over the last couple of years--mostly in the wake of Lost--and what almost none of them seem to get is that an inventive premise or structure won't get them anywhere unless a) they are super-duper-inventive (and most of the time they aren't) or b) the characters are interesting and appealing. Thus far, the only thing interesting about McKidd's character is the fact that weird shit is happening to him, and the show's promise to delve into his and his family's past--to answer, for example, the question of how his brother went from a smartly dressed up-and-comer to a scruffy borderline alcoholic, or how McKidd's character ended up marrying the brother's girlfriend--isn't particularly appealing given that none of these characters have developed a personality yet.
Journeyman's character arc is clearly trying to recall The Time Traveler's Wife--the onset of his time-traveling excursions causes tremendous strain to the protagonist's marriage, which he finally resolves by proving to his incredulous wife that he is telling the truth and promising her that "[he]'ll always come back"--but like that book, it prioritizes the romance over the people experiencing it, and is therefore, to my mind, unsatisfactory.
- Reaper and Chuck: I'm listing these two together because they essentially tell the same story. A twentysomething underachiever--21-year-old Sam Oliver and 25-ish Chuck Bartowski, respectively--and college dropout is working a dead-end job at a big box hardware store and living with his family, when a superpower is dropped in his lap. Sam discovers that his parents sold his soul to the devil and that, for the rest of his life, he is going to be collecting the souls of hell's escapees, aided by special powers such as telekinesis, and a handheld vacuum cleaner that sucks up the truant souls. Chuck receives an e-mail from his college roommate containing the encrypted sum total of the NSA and CIA's intelligence, which lodges itself in his brain, turning him into a walking, talking computer. Now, as both men continue their humdrum existence, working their pointless jobs, lusting after a pretty girl they don't have the guts to approach and hanging out with their obnoxious, dorky best friend, they also moonlight as superheroes--Sam is keeping us safe from demons, Chuck from terrorists. It's an extension, I suppose, of the recent and much-discussed trend of films about geeky, average-looking (for Hollywood, that is) underachievers making it with hot chicks.
The two shows aren't entirely alike. Reaper has more of a fantasy vibe (in the mainstream TV sense, which means that no attempt has been made to establish a coherent alternate or underlying world) and its most obvious inspiration is Wonderfalls, with a hint of Beetlegeuse as well (especially in a scene late in the episode, in which Chuck delivers his captured prey to one of hell's branches--a DMV office). Chuck is more SFnal, and clearly takes its cues from Alias, to which it owes both plot and visual debts--several pulse-pounding, though ludicrous, action scenes punctuate the pilot. It also seems to have a more developed backstory than Reaper. The pilot raises and leaves unanswered several questions, mostly about the person who sent Chuck the information--we're told that he got Chuck thrown out of university and stole his girlfriend, but we don't know exactly what happened, and, of course, we don't know why he chose Chuck as the recipient of his e-mail. There are also unanswered questions about Chuck's friendly CIA handler and his not-so-friendly NSA handler (the omnipresent Adam Baldwin, giving this show a slight edge though thus far his utilization has been minimal).
Both shows are comedic, but Chuck tends more towards naturalistic humor whereas Reaper's is more staged (again, think Alias and Wonderfalls). Nevertheless, I thought Reaper had a more hefty emotional core. There are several scenes in which the horror and despair of Sam's situation peek through the show's mannerisms--when Sam's guilt-stricken mother tells him to send the hounds of hell to her when they come for him, or Sam's stunned silence when the devil shows him the gruesome cost of refusing to do his job. I guess you could say that Chuck has more brains, but Reaper has more heart. This is, of course, speaking relatively--neither show is fantastic, and although I'm willing to give both a week or two more, I'm not in love with either.
- Bionic Woman: This is a bit of a milestone for me. There's been a glut of remakes, reboots and reimaginings of older shows over the last couple of years, but Bionic Woman (for some reason, the show's producers have opted to drop the definite article) is the first such instance in which I was actually a viewer of the original incarnation, which I watched in reruns as a child. In its own cheesy, oblivious, late-70s sort of way, the original Bionic Woman was a proto-feminist show, which makes it all the more dispiriting that the new version, in spite of its shrill protestations to the contrary, is such a throwback. How can you seriously claim to be telling a story about female empowerment when your pilot episode starts with a woman, stained with the blood of her victims, tearfully telling her lover that she can't control herself? She then begs him to tell her he loves her, which he does--but only after he's put a bullet in her chest. So, OK, I told myself, this is the bad guy (there's been so much publicity for this show that I practically knew the pilot's every plot twist in advance, including the fact that Katee Sackhoff plays the first, psychotically evil, bionic woman), and while it's obviously disturbing that she's being portrayed as deranged rather than just immoral (and that, as we later see, she is now doing the bidding of another lover rather than acting on her own behalf), perhaps Jaime Sommers will come as an antidote.
No such luck. On top of being physically augmented, in this version of The Bionic Woman Jaime has had a chip placed in her brain that turns her into a super-soldier, and she now requires training in order to control her own strength and keep herself from following in her predecessor's footsteps. So, yes, a lot of lip service is payed to the notion that female empowerment is good and cool, but in the end this is still a story about a woman being afraid of her own strength (though it's perfectly understandable that Jaime is initially horrified by what's been done to her body, shouldn't we have also seen her rejoice in her new abilities and the pleasure of using them?), and needing the help of men to use it properly.
As a piece of storytelling, the pilot gives off the impression of having been cut down from a 90-minute version (which, given the rumors about trouble on the show's set and significant network meddling, may very well have been the case). It's rushed and disjointed, leaving us very little time to get to know the characters, or even grasp the magnitude of what's happened to Jaime--she's pregnant, she's engaged, she's been in a catastrophic accident, she's lost her baby and been turned into a cyborg, she's a prisoner of the organization that developed the bionic technology, she's a superhero, she's in a pitched battle against Sackhoff's character--before the next plot twist hits her. Michelle Ryan won me over with her performance in Jekyll (though her character was wasted, and the show itself imploded rather spectacularly about halfway through) but she's given so little to work with here that, beyond a bit of spunk and sass, we have hardly a hint of what kind of person Jaime is. I was hoping Katee Sackhoff would get a meaty role to sink her teeth into, given that she's clearly capable of so much more than the self-destructive wreck that Starbuck has become, but the amusingly named Sarah Corvus is nothing more than a garden variety sexy lunatic, complete with quasi-lesbian overtures towards Jaime herself. I wasn't expecting great things from the new Bionic Woman, but I certainly wasn't expecting to be this thoroughly disappointed.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
Thoughts on the New TV Season
Due to a confluence of cancellations, odd scheduling, and dwindling interest on my part, there are only three shows--Heroes, Stargate: Atlantis, and Dexter--returning this month that I watch regularly. Never fear, right? With a dozen or so new shows starting up, there's bound to be at least one or two that I don't hate and that survive past six episodes. Well, I'm not certain yet, but here are my reactions to a few of this week's pilots: