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:
  • 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.
Not a very promising beginning. Here's hoping there's something better in store. For another perspective, check out TV writer Saxon Bullock, who's been gearing up towards the new season all summer. Here are his writeups of Journeyman (plus Life), Chuck (plus Flash Gordon), and Reaper and Bionic Woman (plus The Sarah Connor Chronicles).

16 comments:

Katherine said...

It's so annoying when a great actor is wasted on a mediocre script. I adored Kevin McKidd in Rome, but Journeyman doesn't sound promising.

Re Bionic Woman: Is it just me, or is there a disturbing trend towards misogyny in popular culture lately? Especially misogyny disguised as empowerment.

(Also, I am somehow very amused that you watch Stargate Atlantis. I love that show, but I would have assumed that it didn't meet your standards, which are somewhat higher than mine. I'm happy with pretty people shooting each other, the occasional laugh, and a sprinkling of homoerotic subtext, which SGA does provide. Story arcs and character development -- not so much.)

Anonymous said...

I have sort of opposite reactions to "Chuck" and "Bionic Woman": I liked the "Chuck" pilot very much, but I kind of doubt that the concept will hold an entire show. It looks like something that will start repeating itself very quickly. On the other hand, I agree that the "Bionic Woman" pilot had many script problems (as detailed in the post), but in the end I thought that it showed potential for future plot developments. From a technical/visual point, at least, I thought the pilot was done very well.

Both pilots (especially "Chuck") took me a few years back to a short-lived show called "Jake 2.0", which I think was the first attempt to revive the entire bionic people concept. Nice show that managed to overcome some big script problems it had at first and turn into a solid genre drama, shortly before the plug was pulled on it.

On a completely unrelated, off-topic remark - readers of this blog who plan on attending the screening of "Stardust" the day after tomorrow should come about two hours earlier to catch the screening of "Subject Two" - a modern-day Frankenstein story, done extremely well, and in my opinion - the best film of the festival this year.

-Raz Greenberg

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Is it just me, or is there a disturbing trend towards misogyny in popular culture lately?

I'd say the 'lately' is redundant.

You make an interesting point about misogyny (though perhaps that's too strong a word. Sexism and screwed-up gender dynamics is, I think, closer to the mark) disguised as empowerment. I think that in the wake of the popularity of stories depicting female empowerment - specifically physical empowerment - there's a perception that you can't have a female protagonist who isn't physically imposing. You end up getting supposedly empowering stories from people who have no idea what they've talking about, and whose core assumptions about how women should behave are deeply problematic - such as Bionic Woman.

I got to Atlantis via Stargate: SG-1, and I watch it for much the same reason I watched the parent show. It's a show that doesn't aspire to anything more than mediocrity and usually achieves that goal. I think I'm easier on it than on shows like Lost or Battlestar Galactica, whose initial quality caused me to become invested in them, because from day one it was obvious that Atlantis's writers weren't going to try very hard, but that they'd always deliver good, brainless junk food. Sometimes that's what I crave, and it can be relaxing to watch a show knowing that it can never disappoint me.

I managed to miss Jake 2.0, Raz, though I've heard positive things about it. Perhaps I'll look it up some day.

Katherine said...

there's a perception that you can't have a female protagonist who isn't physically imposing

I am so sick of this assumption. Not that I don't like the women warriors, but come on. The ability to kick the crap out of people is not the be-all and end-all of strength.

You end up getting supposedly empowering stories from people who have no idea what they've talking about, and whose core assumptions about how women should behave are deeply problematic

*nods* People who haven't done all the necessary thinking, and end up producing a horrible mish-mash. I think something similar happened with the sexuality themes in Torchwood -- the greater freedom to depict sex and especially sexual acts and relationships that weren't heterosexual didn't stop it from being startlingly reactionary (while everyone involved congratulated themselves on how liberated they were).

I, too, came to SGA with very low expectations, and they have been met, and occasionally exceeded. I wouldn't want every show to be like SGA, but maybe a few more successful middle-of-the-roaders and a few less pretentious failures might be nice...

Anonymous said...

You end up getting supposedly empowering stories from people who have no idea

I have never liked the word "empowerment". It implies that power has been granted by others, not earned by oneself. Hence all these shows featuring empowered idiots.

Kristen said...

God, I didn't even realize Bionic Woman was supposed to be empowering. I was watching it as a cool story and enjoying Katee Sackhoff's hairdos. I feel like my sensibility is kind of a post-Buffy, post-Alias one: I don't really notice women with superpowers or superior ass-kicking abilities as automatically being feminist icons (I think you mentioned something like that in a comment above). But your post opened my eyes a little bit to how problematic it would be to see Jaime Sommers that way.

However, is that attitude at all redeemed or complicated by the fact that Katee Sackhoff is the one who teaches Jaime a lot about her powers by fighting with her? It seemed kind of like a cool female solidarity thing to me on first viewing... but I wonder if that's too easy an answer.

Anonymous said...

I didn't even finish Bionic Woman. My girlfriend (she who is both wise and beautiful) wanted to watch some quality junk TV, in the form of Kitchen Nightmares. I wanted to watch Bionic Woman. By twenty minutes in, we'd switched over to Kitchen Nightmares.

I think I'm most disturbed by the whole miscarriage thing. The character is a cipher when it happens, and her reaction is mixed in with the reaction to her bionic components. How are we supposed to read that? I suppose we're just supposed to feel bad that a woman had a miscarriage, regardless of (for example) whether she wanted to keep the baby. The viewer's knowledge of her pregnancy is separated from her miscarriage by about five minutes; it's just random emotional chum thrown in the water.

Compare to the pilot of Veronica Mars, in which we learn that she's a tough, brave outsider - and then we learn the hell she's gone through.

It's almost like someone watched that show and drew all the wrong lessons from it.

M. Claxton

ianras said...

Pushing Daisies?

I have to say I hated Wonderfalls and thought of myself as having a low tolerance for zany quirky kitsch but the cute pay-offs in the pilot of Pushing Daisies won me over. Have you watched it?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Katherine:

The ability to kick the crap out of people is not the be-all and end-all of strength.

Yes. That's one of the reasons I enjoyed Veronica Mars. The show has its problems, but it offered a different spin on feminine strength - a kind driven by character and intelligence rather than muscles.

Kristen:

It's still very unclear what Sackhoff's character wants from Jaime, but I think it's very possible that you're right and that she wants to mentor her. Whether this is a good thing is debatable, especially given that Sarah is a lunatic who thinks flesh is something to be cut away and replaced by machines.

M. Claxton:

Yes, the miscarriage is both poorly conceived and executed, but I think it could have been worse. I read an interview a while back (with either the actress or the producers, I can't remember) in which it was stated that the miscarriage would drive Jaime. I'm almost relieved that it got so little attention.

ianras:

I watched the Pushing Daisies pilot a few weeks ago. It's so adorable I could eat it up, but I sincerely doubt its premise can be extended into a series without devolving into formula. I'm also concerned that, unlike Wonderfalls (which I quite enjoyed), it lacks a grounding element in the vein of Jay's cynicism to keep it from becoming consumed by its own cuteness.

Todd said...

I've been thinking about the "obnoxious, dorky best friend" phenomenon, a cliche that stretches at least back to Sherlock Holmes. Actually I don't know how "obnoxious" Watson was, but it seems to be an unwritten rule that the main character must always be cooler than the supporting character(s). I guess that's only natural; if the main character isn't the "best," then why is he the focus of the story? But it seems like supporting characters become almost set in stone as soon as the main one is defined. There's almost never any real imagination in them. (Of course, this applies more to stories that focus on one main character, rather than true ensembles.)

Then there's the feminine equivalent, which probably IS written somewhere: the main female character must be the most physically beautiful woman present.

Anonymous said...

Todd - Ugly Betty? Star Wars (Luke is the male lead)? The Hole (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0242527/)?

Abigail:

The show has its problems, but it offered a different spin on feminine strength - a kind driven by character and intelligence rather than muscles.

I think it is interesting that, from all the qualities that people possess, so many “feminist” shows pick the only quality in which women clearly tend to draw the short straw. I tend to think that the idea is that any normal woman, if given superpowers, could be the equal of any man…

Kellie said...

My most superficial critique of both Bionic Woman and Flash Gordon was how the women were all brunettes and mostly had the same body type and facial structure (and even hair style and length at times) as to be interchangeable. But I'm blonde, so that could just be me looking around and saying, "Hey, only the evil cyborg chick and the so-pretty-it-hurts-as-I'm-tracking-Dad hero look like me. I feel stereotyped." (Just remembered that there was one other blonde chick in BW, but she appeared to be in line with the first of Sarah's men, so I'm not sure what side she's playing.)

As for the BW pilot, I happened to look away when they mentioned the miscarriage, so I spent the rest of the show wondering what the heck had happened to the baby and why wasn't anyone talking about it, particularly when Jaime and her guy decided to bump uglies later on. It was a chaotic ep, but I still managed to walk away with a "could be interesting" taste, so I'll probably give it a few more eps. I'd also need to see more to look for misogyny. The show moved so fast that I couldn't get enough sense of characters to delve much into their text, let alone their subtext. I'm the thick-headed sort who usually needs to see things twice to see the subtleties anyway, so... :)

Like katherine, I was also surprised that you like SGA as I've considered it and SG1 to be my SF guilty pleasures. While I don't come to the show expecting much, I do hope they can develop a good plot arc this season (preferably with Michael) as I get tired of all the standalones, no matter how enjoyable they are.

Liz said...

I've now watched Reaper, Journeyman, and Bionic Woman. I thought Reaper was entertaining, quirky, not too demanding fun which rose above that by being actually quite funny in places, and managing to pull it off alongside the serious notes of actually selling your soul to the devil. Plus I liked the devil.

Journeyman was slick, well-acted and not terribly interesting apart from Kevin McKidd, and the fact that when I was shouting "get something from the past!" at the TV screen he actually did it. It's got enough potential to survive another week, at least.

Bionic Woman was a load of tosh redeemed only by Katee Sackhoff fighting in the rain, and gave me no sense of where the actual series might go with it.

(On an unrelated note I also saw Subject Two about 18 months ago at a film festival, and thought it was a great example of how to make a bad film out of a great premise.)

Anonymous said...

I have seen the "Journeyman" pilot today, and after hearing all the negative reactions to it, I must say that it wasn't all that bad. Not great, not even in the "pretty good" zone, but it fits into the "Ok" category. There are nice visuals and the cast is pleasent enough. I agree that the from a structural and dialogue perspective there was nothing amazing here, but for the most part there was nothing insulting either - and at several points the writers actually managed to give the right "fish out of the water" feeling to the whole thing.
That said, I don't think I'll keep following the show - the pilot was done well, but didn't end in a way that made me believe following episodes won't be just more of the same (I had the same reaction to "The Sarah Connor Chronicles", by the way).
I have. however, seen the second episode of "Chuck" and and I must say I'm hooked. This is my favorite show of the new season.

-Raz Greenberg

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Bear in mind that I watched the Journeyman pilot (and wrote up the preliminary version of the review in this post) several weeks before the rest of the season started. At that point, I had no idea how comparatively watchable it would turn out to be, though like yourself I'm still not planning to follow the series.

I'm still in the cautiously optimistic phase with Chuck (and to a lesser extent with Reaper, whose annoying best friend character is a great deal more annoying than Chuck's and is taking up far too much airtime). I'll give it another week, but I'm not hooked yet.

Mark said...

I've watched two episodes of Journeyman now and I want to like it a whole lot more than I do. But that will require the characters to be a lot smarter than they've been so far. Maybe it comes of reading SF all my life, but I find it hard to believe that our hero doesn't very quickly come to some useful conclusions about his situation.

Things like: keep useful items (old currency and/or gold coins, for instance) on your person at all times. He had to have that one explained to him--and he STILL managed to nearly get arrested in the past for passing 'funny' (modern) currency.

I want to see that the writers have put some thought into what's going on. When he takes things from his own apartment, are they things he _remembers_ losing and wondered what ever happened to them? (When he takes some clothes I'd have loved to see him pull that outfit out of the closet and say "I always wondered what happened to these..." as he puts them on.)

Are there events in his past where he "coincidentally" had/found JUST the thing he needed to deal with it--and did the time-traveling him set those up? Why isn't he setting up evidence of his time travel adventures to prove to important people in his life that he's not crazy? He did that once for his wife in the pilot--but by the next episode they seem to back to square one.

It could still happen, I suppose, but...I'm not holding my breath.

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