Saturday, June 21, 2008

When Pilots are a-Leakin'

There's a long, hot slog through the dull summer months yet to go before there's much of anything worth watching on TV, but as has become traditional in the last few years, a few of next year's pilots have started to leak online. Whether they were deliberately released as a way of generating buzz and creating an interested group of viewers, or simply made it online through some less kosher means, they give us a taste of what we have to look forward to. Here are my thoughts on two of them:

Fringe - Let's be honest: 'J.J. Abrams does X-Files' is no-one's idea of a winning formula. Take one television auteur whose name has become synonymous with big build-ups and poor follow-through, combine it with the second coming of a series that strung its viewers along for the better part of a decade promising a conclusion which it was ultimately incapable of delivering, and you're almost guaranteed a show that'll steal your heart and then break it. Except that, in the case of Fringe, the first part doesn't seem to be happening. Abrams's previous two shows had exceptionally strong, plotty pilots with irresistible hooks--spy discovers that she's working for the wrong people, swears revenge; plane crash survivors band together, realize that they're stranded on a very weird island. Though it is undeniably stylish and well-paced, less than an hour after watching the Fringe pilot, I could barely remember what had happened in it, and the premise of the show seems to be the rather amorphous 'weird shit is happening, and improbably pretty people have banded together to investigate it.'

Anna Torv is winning if a little on the bland side as a tough and determined FBI agent. She has a definite advantage on Sydney Bristow in that she lacks the latter's penchant for whiny self-centerdness--though the pilot revolves around her scrambling to find a cure for a disease that is melting her lover's tissues (a truly gross special effect, and in fact if the pilot makes one thing clear it's that grossness is one thing this show is not afraid of), she doesn't put herself or her fear for him at the center of the story, and is refreshingly adult about her predicament. Joshua Jackson has the thankless role of playing the callow young man who is this show's Scully. He's clearly intended as Torv's love interest, and no attempt has therefore been made to imbue their relationship with anything unique to it or to their characters' personalities--it is simply another iteration of Young People Hitting It Off. More interesting are his interactions with his father, played by John Noble and currently the show's greatest strength, a veritable mad scientist who spent most of the last two decades in a mental institution. He's entertainingly off the wall, but in the long run his character needs to amount to more than amusingly batty. The plot seems deliberately geared at confounding the expectations of long-time Abrams fans who have learned his rather limited repertoire by heart (the story does not, for example, start in media res and then flash back to X time-units earlier) but in the process Abrams seems to have forgotten to tell a story that is more than pedestrian. The result is not unwatchable, and since Abrams is involved I'll probably watch a few more episodes come fall, but right now I'm dubious that this show will ever get the chance to break my heart.

Life on Mars - Strictly speaking, this isn't a leaked pilot, as, with producer David E. Kelley off the show and rumors of it being heavily retooled (characters recast, the setting moved from LA to New York), it's unlikely ever to air in its present form. And with good reason. I'd been prepared, by the ubiquitous comments on this issue, for the disparity between the US and UK versions' acting caliber. The actors are arguably what made the UK Life on Mars work, and none of US castmembers hold a candle to the original cast. What I wasn't expecting was that the other strength upon which the original Life on Mars's success hinged--the show's look, from its meticulous set design to its lush visuals--would also fail to make the trip across the Atlantic. Props- and set-wise, the remake does reasonably well, though it's missing the tiny details--the crazy patterns on Sam's shirts, his horrible wallpaper and furniture, the griminess and shabbiness of most of the locations he moves in--but it looks washed out and uninteresting, and the camera-work doesn't pull the viewers along as the UK version's inevitably did. The sequence in which Sam has his accident and wakes up in the past is recreated almost shot-by-shot, but the US version doesn't come close to the dizzying beauty of the original.

The remake's pilot is quite a faithful copy of the original's, and so the instances in which the two diverge are not only glaring but telling. In the original, it's Maya who insists that the murder suspect, who turns out to have an airtight alibi, must know the murderer. Sam dismisses this idea, but it turns out to be right. In the remake, it's Sam who has this brainwave and Maya who doubts him. In the original, Sam calls Annie up in front of the bullpen so she can tell him why the killer didn't gag his victim. In the remake, Sam asks Annie up front so she can act as a silent visual aid while he explains to the other detectives that the killer needs to see his victims' mouths because he wants to kiss them (an experience she later describes as 'thrilling'). Perhaps most crucially, the crux of the episode, and of the entire show, is missing--Sam never has to decide whether to suppress evidence of the killer's mental problems in the past in order to stop him from killing in the future. Other annoying differences include a deliberate dumbing down of the episode--in the original, we didn't have to be told how frustrating it was that Sam needed six people in the room before he could talk to a suspect, it was enough to show him reciting the endless list of their names and titles; in the remake, we have a funny-looking lawyer crowing loudly that his client has rights--and the ill-fated decision to make Gene Hunt into a source of metafictional jokes by having him make cracks like 'this completes your orientation' or 'let's have a strategy session.' Gene's core characteristic is that he is completely lacking in self-awareness, and that his prodigious force of will makes up for this lack by bending the world around him, ensuring that he only sees what he wants to see (which is why the decision to make him aware of Sam's claim of time travel in the remake makes no sense). This, like so many other things that made Life on Mars special, seems to have escaped the remake's writers' attention.


Raz Greenberg said...

The "Fringe" pilot managed to keep my interest all the way through - didn't open as strong as the other pilots from the same producer, I agree, but unlike most X-Files wannabes, it did do a very skillfull job in keeping the drama alive.
Looking back at the "Supernatural Mystery" genre a whole, I think exactly four shows managed to capture my attention, because they managed to bring somwthing new to the old formula: "Buffy" and "Angel" had their brilliant diaglogue and characters, "The Dead Zone" and "4400" (in their early seasons) actually turned the formula upside-down when they examined the "normal" world through the supernatural perspective. I'm not sure how successful "Fringe" will be in bringing a new perspective of its own with the entire "Mad Scientist" concept, but I'm optismistic. And the rest of the cast is strong enough.
Speaking of new shows, "The Middleman" - based on my absolute favorite American comics of the past two years - debuted this week. There are acting and direction issues, but overall, even though I knew exactly what's going to happen, it still was one of the more entertaining shows I've seen in a while. And it certainly fills the vacume made by the absence of "Chuck".

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Well, hell, if your frame of reference is other X-Files clones, of course Fringe is going to look good :-)

I agree that the pilot was engaging while it was going on, but as I said once it was over I retained very little of it - just about the most memorable thing about it was the unusual format of the location titles.

I've heard about The Middleman but haven't seen it yet.

Len said...

I see no reason why any viewer other than a masochist would sign up for another J.J Abrams mytharc show.

(I watched the leaked pilot, and just finished deleting several paragraphs of the issues I had with it)

(Middleman was trying too hard the first episode and needs to just calm down a bit, but it was fluffy fun at least)

Alison said...

I am fiercely glad that the haven't been able to reproduce LoM. It's like they've only noticed the top layer.

Niall said...

"In the remake, Sam asks Annie up front so she can act as a silent visual aid"

Gah. I knew something was off about this scene, but I couldn't remember the original well enough to work out what it was! Thanks.

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