Sunday, September 20, 2009

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2009 Edition

One of the blessings for the Jewish new year (and a happy 5770 to those celebrating it) is 'let the year and its curses end; let the year and its blessings begin.' There's a similar failure to learn from experience at work, I think, in the fall pilot season. Every year, producers and viewers alike line up excitedly to present or review the new crop of shows. And sure, there'll be a decent one or two in there, but also a lot of dross to wade through, most of it made up of clones of last year's success stories or remakes of the last decade's hits. Most of the heavy hitters (and the returning shows) won't begin their seasons until next week, but here are my thoughts on a few of the new shows which have had their premieres in the first half of the month.
  • Glee - From Television Without Pity to The New York Times, everyone has lined up to crown this show, about a high school teacher who resurrects his school's glee club and the group of misfits and losers who join it, one of the best debuts of the fall. Having watched the pilot when it aired last spring, I was at a bit of a loss to see what the excitement was about. Partly this was due to the show's premise straining my suspension of disbelief--in my high school, the beautiful kids who could sing and dance were admired, not mocked, and though there are obviously some cultural differences at play (we didn't have football teams or cheerleaders, for one thing) I find it hard to believe that things are so different in the US. Mostly, though, the problem was that the show didn't seem to know what tone it wanted to strike. Was it a saccharine High School Musical clone for people too proud to watch the Disney Channel, or something sharper and more cynical? The pilot episode owes so many debts to Election that it borders on plagiarism, and yet repeatedly sugarcoats what in that film was coal-black comedy--the male lead's dimness, the female lead's ambition, their teacher's curdled aspirations and unhappy marriage. The result was a story that constantly reached for a clever subversiveness and then chickened out.

    The two episodes that have aired this fall represent a massive improvement, with the show shifting into absurdist, over the top humor (Jane Lynch, as the psychotic cheerleading coach who reminisces about her time in Special Forces as she plots to bring glee club down, is the show's greatest asset in this respect) which sits better with the sweetness of its plots and character arcs. With a bit of luck, Glee could settle into the fusion of earnest, wholesome emotion and surreal, occasionally raunchy humor that made Pushing Daisies such a delight. As others have noted, it's a shame that for an alleged ensemble show Glee is placing such an emphasis on the (white, beautiful, straight, able-bodied) leads and short-changing the (black, Asian, gay, paralyzed) supporting members of the club, but I'm hoping that as the season progresses these characters too will get storylines. Right now, my main complaint about the show is that the musical numbers are far too processed, often comprising twice the number of vocalists and musicians as are actually on stage. If you've got actual Broadway singers in your cast, why not let them, and not the production booth, shine? That and the fact that Victor Garber and Deborah Monk have appeared in guest roles, and yet neither one of them has sung a note. Fix that, show.

  • The Vampire Diaries - Despite being a blatant, and by all accounts entirely successful, attempt to cash in on the Twilight craze (lousy as it was, one can't help but feel sorry for the producers of Moonlight--one year later and they would have had a surefire hit on their hands), The Vampire Diaries is best described as a supernatural version of Roswell--an ensemble teen soap led by a painfully wooden, diary-writing brunette who falls in love with a mysterious and dangerous alien/vampire, and who will no doubt drag her entire social set into his world as they negotiate their forbidden romance (the pilot hits the first few of these beats in a thoroughly perfunctory manner, spending most of its energy on long, lingering looks between the female lead and her equally acting-impaired love interest). So though I do feel that it's a little unfair to launch into a prematurely geriatric rant about how we had a better class of vampire show when I was a teenager, because clearly The Vampire Diaries isn't even trying to be as witty or as subversive as Buffy, even a comparison with Roswell--by no means a brilliant, well-written, or competently-acted series--isn't particularly kind to The Vampire Diaries. Roswell's characters at least had a bit of vivaciousness, through which they occasionally transcended the uninteresting stories they were handed, whereas the pop songs on its soundtrack are far more memorable than any of The Vampire Diaries's characters, even the supposedly charismatic, deliciously evil villain. The closest this show comes to being vivacious or even interesting is when its actresses are arrested for flashing motorists near their set.

  • Community - There's nothing really wrong with this half-hour comedy about Jeff, a chronic, amoral liar who is stripped of his (fake) law degree and forced to go to community college to earn a real one, and in fact it gets a lot of things right. A true ensemble show, it puts together a group of memorable characters and gives each of them a chance to come to the fore, and as Jeff, Joel McHale pulls off the tricky feat of winning us over to his character's side through charm and sheer chutzpah, while making it clear that both conceal nothing but emptiness. Still, there's something off. The pilot is witty and at points quite funny, but like its main character, it is also slick and shallow. There's potential for a lot of uncomfortable humor in Community's premise--it's a story about a pathological liar who is finally being called on his bullshit--but the show never truly seems to commit to it, and instead of inviting revulsion at Jeff's soullessness, or schadenfreude at his finally being called to account for his lies, or even sympathy with his amoral stance, it remains flippant and sitcommy. The only moment of genuine emotion comes in the closing credits, which after an episode that makes a dozen or so references to The Breakfast Club dedicate the pilot to the memory of John Hughes. Community is funny, but it needed to be a hell of a lot funnier than it is for me to ignore its emotional flatness. In general, sitcoms take a while to grow on me, and an ensemble show like Community clearly needs more than 22 minutes to find its voice, so I'm willing to give the show a few more episodes before I make a final decision, but right now I'm not feeling terribly excited.

  • Bored to Death - I admire the nerve of a writer who names their series Bored to Death, but I'm afraid the name hits too close to my reaction to HBO's newest comedy. Jason Schwartzman plays Jonathan, a writer and part-time gossip columnist who deals with a breakup, his inability to follow up his first novel, and his general ennui by placing an ad on Craigslist offering his services as a detective. But as the man said, the problem isn't being bored, it's being boring. It's not simply that Jonathan is, as a character in the pilot points out, "another self-hating New York Jew." He's also a neurotic, narcissistic man-child with verbal diarrhea, the attention span of a puppy, and not the slightest hint of a spine. If that weren't unappealing enough, his best friend is an unkempt, loud-mouthed slacker straight out of Judd Apatow's rejected ideas pile. Why anyone, much less the gorgeous, seemingly normal woman whose departure sends Jonathan on his path towards a life of crime-solving, would want to spend more than a few minutes in his presence is a mystery in itself, though it is telling that most of the characters Jonathan encounters are either high or seek to become so within seconds of meeting him. I think the only way for Bored to Death to become more appealing is for viewers to follow that example.

2 comments:

Gareth said...

If someone can find me a real-life American teenage girl who keeps a paper diary and starts an entry with "Dear Diary", I'll watch this pilot. Otherwise, forget it.

Adam Roberts Project said...

Slightly belatedly: 'Shana Tova!'

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