Saturday, April 04, 2009

Endings and Beginnings

So, the master plan for April is to start moving away from the recent all TV, all the time theme of this blog and return to your regularly scheduled book-blogging (though in the interim you might want to read these very interesting discussions of BSFA-nominated short fiction at Torque Control), but this week was an interesting one in the TV annals, comprising an early death, a late death (though both, I would say, somewhat overdue) and a resurrection. Here are my thoughts.
  • ER - The long-running hospital series came to an end this week after a fifteen-season run, and though I've been at best an occasional viewer for the last ten of those, it was hard not to feel a little misty this week, thinking back to those first five seasons and my deep devotion to the show during them. It's not that ER was the first 'grown-up' series I became invested in--that was either St. Elsewhere or LA Law--and it's not that it was my first fannish show--that was either original flavor Star Trek or The Next Generation--but it was the series that first got me excited about television. For a while there, before everyone started copying it and before the show itself started surrendering the very things that made it unique, it was the most unusual show on TV--intense, almost cinematic in its visual sensibility, relentless in its pacing, and making the unusual plotting decision of dividing most episodes into several plotlines which followed different doctors and patients and hardly ever leaving the confines of the hospital. I remember watching the first season episode "Love's Labor Lost" with my heart in my throat and my jaw on the floor. I had no idea television could do anything like that, and when the episode credits rolled I felt shell-shocked and wrung out. I don't think it's overstating it to say that much of what we take for granted on TV today, and mainly the cinematic visuals and pacing of shows like 24 or Battlestar Galactica, dates right back to ER.

    Of course, ER hasn't been that series for a long time. It very quickly started focusing more on its characters' personal lives than their jobs, telling stories outside the hospital, and finally became a well done but traditional character drama set in a hospital, with occasional pulse-pounding traumas and, at least twice a season, a major catastrophe set in the ER or involving the main characters. Melodrama, rather than adrenalin, became the hook with which the show landed its viewers. ER mellowed, and the same thing happened to its characters, many of whom reappear in the finale: Benton the robotic perfectionist who never showed a hint of emotion; Weaver, who hobbled up to Mark Greene in the second season, stole his fries and told him he was going to make her chief resident; Corday, who showed up, took one look at Benton, and went on the hunt; Carter, the boy-king. All of them are now comfortably middle-aged, settled down with kids and more respectable, less time-consuming jobs, living happy but unremarkable lives. Like the show, and most of the characters who followed them, they started out young and edgy, full of piss and vinegar and attractive personal issues, and gradually their rough edges were worn off and they found a comfortable equilibrium. It's understandable that a finale summing up fifteen years would veer towards sentimentality, and some of the sentimental touches in the episode were very well done--using the actor who played Benton's son Reese as a toddler to portray him as a teenager; recreating the pilot's first shot of a sleeping doctor in the on-call room woken by a nurse whose silhouette is the only thing we see of her; most of all, Rachel Greene arriving at the ER as a prospective medical student--but the ER finale celebrated this mellow, middle-aged show, not the young punk I fell in love with, so that even though I feel moved at this ending, I think the finale of my ER came a long time ago.

  • Life on Mars US - I gave up on the American remake a few episodes into its run, finding it preachy and heavy-handed and missing the vastly superior British cast. Apparently I wasn't alone, because the show has been canceled after only 17 episodes (which, to be fair, is one episode more than the UK version made), but with enough time for its writers to film an ending which was, apparently, the one they'd planned from the beginning. The finale leaves me in very little doubt that I did the right thing by dumping the series. It's corny, overdone ("look at those cavemen go," Sam's mother mutters when Gene and Ray huffily leave the room after interrogating her), and worst of all, it seems to have transformed Gene Hunt into a lovable teddy bear who dispenses sage advice and gives hugs to men and promotions to women. So really, the only thing worth noting here is the ending, in which (SPOILERS from here on in) we learn that Sam is actually an astronaut on a manned mission to Mars in 2035, whose virtual reality environment, meant to keep him entertained during two years of suspended animation, has gone screwy due to a meteor storm. He wakes up to find that Annie, Ray, Chris and Gene are his crew, and that Gene is his father--a good father to make up for the nightmare figure of Vic Tyler in 1973.

    I've seen some positive responses to this ending, and for the life of me I can't figure out why. As problematic as the original Life on Mars ending was, it at least had bite. 'It was all a dream' is a reviled resolution because it means that none of the character's choices have meaning--such as the US version's Sam deciding to stay in 1973 before the simulation ends--but the UK ending added a twist by having Sam choose to go back into the fantasy after waking up. It might not have been a decision we agree with--I basically had to invent an alternate interpretation of it in order to make it palatable--but it set consequences for the characters' choices, whereas the US Sam gets to have everything--the friendship and camaraderie of his crew and life in the right, enlightened time and place--without paying a price, because he was never in any danger to begin with, and no matter what choices he made in the simulation his story was always going to end the same way. When I wrote about the American Life on Mars pilot I said that it seemed to have reversed the UK original's priorities. If the UK Life on Mars was a 70s cop show fueled by an improbable genre premise its writers had no idea how to successfully resolve, the American version was a genre series that told cop stories. After all my harping about Battlestar Galactica it feels churlish to call TV writers to task for trying to write a science fiction story, which the US Life on Mars undeniably was, but that laudable attempt doesn't change the fact that their ending was pointless and meaningless. The UK Life on Mars wins in a knockout.

  • Cupid - Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas returns with a remake of his short-lived mid-90s series about a man who is either the exiled god of romantic love or a lunatic, who is hell-bent on matching one hundred perfect couples, and the psychiatrist trying to bring him back to earth and protect the people whose lives he meddles with. The original Cupid had a devoted following which I was never a part of. I found the show cute, but not much more than that. I certainly didn't see the mad chemistry between the original leads (Jeremy Piven and Paula Marshall) that, according to hardcore fans, is completely lacking between their successors, Bobby Cannavale and Sarah Paulson. Which is not to say that I'm terrifically impressed by either of their performances--Cannavale is playing standard variety zany with very few unique touches, and Paulson, who has been magnificent in dramatic roles on Deadwood and Serenity, either needs to stop doing comedy entirely or do a different kind of comedy, as she is completely annoying in a role that feels like Harriet Hayes minus the Christianity.

    Still, the actors aren't the issue so much as the writing, and my main problem with Cupid remains the same as it was a decade ago--who the hell wants to watch a romantic comedy of the week show? I'm more a Claire than a Trevor by nature. The romantic relationships I've enjoyed watching on TV are the ones that slowly simmered and built up to something strong and lasting--John Crichton and Aeryn Sun, or, since we've been talking about ER, the way that Doug Ross and Carol Hathaway took three years to find their way back to each other on that show. The meet cute, experience complication, overcome complication, ride off into sunset never to be seen again format doesn't hold much interest for me, and neither does the prospect of romantic tension between the leads which can never go anywhere. I watched the new Cupid because Thomas earned my loyalty with Veronica Mars (see also Party Down, which is basically The Office in a catering company, only not as funny and a great deal more uncomfortable to watch), but I don't see any reason to keep watching.


Kit said...

Did American Life on Mars somehow miss that the "on Mars" was supposed to be metaphorical? I knew the show was terrible, but that's boldly going forth into a frontier of clueless stupidity hitherto unexplored.

I hate to force you to remember the episode by asking this question, but I'm morbidly curious- was there ever an attempt to make the VR thing make any remote kind of sense?

Even aside from the whole Star Trek holodeck stupidity of "Given all of space and time, fiction and reality to play with, the thing I most want to roleplay while I'm in stasis is police work in 1970s NYC," even aside from the obvious question of why the computers would have enough data on 1970s NY to create a plausible facsimile, wouldn't Gene et al. be modern fellow RPers in this scenario? And wouldn't that destroy the whole conflict of values between Sam and Gene that's the crux of the show? (Or the crux of the British show, at any rate.)

Actually, come to think of it you could do a brilliant social commentary on how RPers tend to use the anonymity of the gaming world as an excuse to act like sexist, racist neanderthals. Poor meteor-jostled Sam has forgotten that it's all VR and thinks they're really from 1970, but actually they're just contemporary jerks acting like they're from 1970.

Somehow I suspect this is not what happened here.

Oddly enough, Spanish Life on Mars looks like it may potentially be good.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

In the series's last scene, we're told that the astronauts could choose their sleeping fantasy, and Sam chose to be a cop in 2008 (which, as you say, raises the question of why he'd do so. The show tries to hang a lantern on this by having Chris ask just this question, but we get no answer). Then a meteor storm caused a glitch and sent Sam, with his 2008 memories, to a simulation of 1973. I don't think we're meant to believe that Gene and the others were really taking part in Sam's fantasy (Chris talks about his own fantasy island scenario), which only serves to further cheapen the experience.

Spanish Life on Mars

Huh, I had no idea. It's a little weird to think of Life on Mars as another The Office, getting exported all over the world, but I am a little intrigued.

Kit said...

So in fact Sam spent the whole time interacting with a bunch of NPCs that looked and to some extent acted like his fellow astronauts, but were actually just simulacra. Racist, sexist simulacra. Huh. That's not going to be at all awkward when he tries to interact with the real people they were based on.

Spanish trailer with subs, if you're interested:

I have my doubts about the acting, but the atmosphere and the physical presence of the cast seem about right.

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