Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2009 Edition, Part 3

At long last, we've reached the end of this abysmal fall season (well, not quite--the V pilot won't air until early next month). Progress reports on those shows I've stuck with: Community is coming into its own, albeit by making the main character the straight man and focusing on his reactions to the zany supporting staff, which a bit of a departure from the show's original premise but seems to be working; Glee has settled into a comfortable good-but-not-great zone, and I think it's time to give up on the hope that anyone other than the beautiful white leads is going to get a storyline; The Good Wife has been consistently good but, as I suspected, has turned into a client of the week show and is thus probably going to lose me; FlashForward has gone from flawed but potentially interesting to moronically, insultingly stupid, and is my first abandoned show of the season.
  • Mercy, Trauma and Three Rivers - The fall's three new medical shows, each trying to find a fresh spin on the format and failing miserably. Mercy focuses on nurses instead of doctors, following in the footsteps of two shows from the summer: the by all accounts dreadful HawthoRNe and the well-made but chilly Nurse Jackie. It borrows character types and plot points quite liberally from the latter, putting as melodramatic a spin on each of them as it can. So the source of the main character's dysfunction is tragically heroic (PTSD following a stint in Iraq) rather than offputting (drug addiction) and her two love interests are a luggish husband and a dreamy doctor rather than two equally adorable and adoring men. Mercy's failing is its unwillingness to embrace the trashiness of its chosen plots, opting instead for a stupefyingly earnest tone as it describes the main character's lingering trauma, or the saintliness of all nurses as opposed to the callous incompetence of all doctors. It comes off as too dumb to realize how trite and simplistic it is.

    Trauma is a show about paramedics that is clearly angling to be the next ER. This seems like an unlikely outcome given that despite featuring a midair collision between two helicopters, a multi-car pileup, and a high-speed joyride that ends with a bystander losing their finger, there is not a single tense moment in the whole pilot. Left to fend for themselves, the characters, who are coping with the aftermath of the aforementioned helicopter accident (which involved a medevac chopper and claimed the lives of several of their friends) and exemplify several different varieties of depression but not a single interesting trait, can't supply the energy that the writing and direction are lacking, so that despite its suggestive title, Trauma is a morose snoozefest.

    Three Rivers is a more procedural show about an organ transplant team. Quite how one would go about telling interesting and dramatic stories about organ transplants week in and out I have no idea, but if there are writers out there who are up to the task they clearly haven't been hired for Three Rivers. The pilot blows its entire wad of clichés--a pregnant patient, a husband forced to make decisions for his unconscious wife as the clock ticks for patient and organ alike, a choice between the mother's well-being and the baby's, a donor whose family backs out of the donation at the last minute--and yet can't muster up a single dramatic or compelling moment. One possible reason for this flatness is that the pilot is much more interested in educating viewers about organ donation (did you know that it's possible to donate a portion of your liver?) and dispelling myths about it than in telling an interesting story about well-drawn characters. I'm all for encouraging organ donation, but preachy, tedious drama is probably not the best way to go about it.

  • Stargate: Universe - For more than a year now, SyFy has been plugging the third Stargate series as a darker, edgier spin on the franchise. This, as we all suspected and as the three-hour pilot demonstrates, means a desperate attempt to ape Battlestar Galactica, with decidedly mixed results. The first two hours of "Air" are quite decent and at points even intense, as an off-world research expedition finds itself stranded with barely any supplies on a decrepit alien spaceship which they can't control, a fantastic number of light years from Earth (as others have noted, this is essentially the premise of the previous spin-off, Stargate: Atlantis, but with less room for the writers to back out of the setting's disconnect from Earth as they did in that series). The tone is indeed darker and more muted, but this extends to the characters, who are less vibrant than their counterparts in other Stargate series, and whose traumas (the young female lead loses her father soon after arriving on the ship, and her male counterpart was a prospective priest until he got a girl pregnant) are melodramatic and not very interesting, and raise serious questions about the writers' ability to achieve the level of writing that their more naturalistic, grimmer tone demands.

    It is, for example, potentially very interesting that the main character, Robert Carlyle's Dr. Rush, is essentially this show's Baltar, but to actually write a show around such an irredeemably arrogant, self-centered, and, as the pilot clearly demonstrates, dangerously single-minded character without turning them into a stock villain (or a misunderstood woobie) requires a degree of skill that is, I suspect, well beyond this particular writing room's abilities--certainly by the end of "Air" I found Rush entirely unbearable, and the notion that he'd been placed in charge of the mission untenable. Meanwhile, the other characters remind us that this is still the same old Stargate: the only black main castmember is a violent hothead (who, admittedly, endeared himself to me considerably when he repeatedly thrashed Rush in the pilot's final hour), and the three female leads are a weepy poli-sci major who worked for her senator father (the one who dies), a slightly less weepy medic, and Ming Na, who gets almost no exposure or background in the pilot (and is conspicuously absent from this not at all surprising take on the show's female characters). Three hours in, the only character I'm interested in is Louis Ferreira's Colonel Young, a welcome antidote to the larger than life but also boyishly immature military leads of both SG1 and Atlantis, though it seems likely that Young is only being allowed to be so refreshingly unheroic because all hero duties are going to devolve to his younger counterpart, the supremely uninteresting Lt. Scott. (David Blue is also doing good work as computer genius Eli Wallace, but the character is essentially a toned down, less abrasive version of Atlantis's McKay, and really, what is the point.)

    There's a precipitous drop in quality in the pilot's third hour, a slack, samey affair driven by multiple plot holes in which the characters must travel to an alien planet to retrieve a substance that will allow them to repair the ship's life support system while under the gun of an arbitrarily imposed countdown, and which raises doubts about the long-term viability of the show's premise. For all the producers' insistence that Universe is returning to the franchise's roots by using the stargate as a vehicle for story, both SG1 and Atlantis derived much of their appeal from the existence of recurring characters, settings, and particularly villains, whereas Universe's premise seems designed for single-serving stories--the ship stops, dials the gate, and keeps going without any input from the characters, and with apparently no way for them to return to a previously visited planet. That's a flaw that later episodes may very well address, but more problematic is the gap between the show's concept of itself and the talent driving it. I watched the previous two Stargate series despite their mediocrity because they never took themselves too seriously, and could usually be relied upon to deliver unassuming entertainment with a few fun character moments. Stargate: Universe seems to have loftier goals, in the pursuit of which it appears to have jettisoned the franchise's sense of whimsy in exchange for a depressing glumness, without stopping to consider how much more skill it requires to fashion interesting, dramatic fare using such a muted emotional palette. Though I'm willing to give Stargate: Universe a few more weeks' grace, my experience of both the pilot and two preceding series doesn't give me much hope that its writers have this kind of skill.

  • Caprica - Obviously, this is not a fall 2009 pilot, but I did watch the two hour premiere of the Battlestar Galactica prequel series last week, in preparation for my Icon panel. As you'll probably have guessed if you've read any of my Galactica coverage over the years, I wasn't overjoyed to be stepping back into this fictional universe, and perhaps because of these basement-level expectations Caprica left me pleasantly surprised, if still not entirely committed to the series (whose first season is projected to air in the winter). What to me is Caprica's most appealing feature, but which may turn out to be its core flaw, is that it doesn't feel at all connected to Galactica (according to IMDb the series was originally pitched to NBC as an unrelated science fiction project and only later spun into the Galactica universe). Even if we accept that the Colonies underwent a severe anti-technology backlash in the wake of the first Cylon war, it's hard to imagine Galactica's world following on Caprica's strongly futuristic one, and there is a faint but unmistakable disconnect between the two shows' treatment of religion and the origin of the Cylons (also, the nitpicker in me couldn't help but notice how unlikely it is that Joseph Adama could have been a fortyish practicing lawyer sixty years before Galactica's beginning and still had a career that overlapped with Romo Lampkin's). More crucially, Caprica has a much more SFnal focus than Galactica--the creation of machine intelligence, and the shifting definition of personhood in the wake of that creation, which in Galactica was simply a given which the show used as a framework for its questioning of more generic ethical questions. This is not a terrifically original SFnal premise, particularly given the technological arrogance spin the show seems to be putting on it, and the pilot's last thirty minutes, which focus almost exclusively on its SFnal aspect, are also its least involving. On the other hand, Alessandra Torresani, who plays the first artificial sentience, a copy of the murdered young daughter of a genius engineer, gives a very strong performance, and there's a lot of potential in the pilot's final plot twist, which sees her personality dumped into an old-style Cylon. If nothing else, it is incredibly amusing--and, in this respect at least, entirely congruent with what we saw of them in Battlestar Galactica--to learn that the Cylons' core personality was modeled on that of a petulant, judgmental teenage girl.

7 comments:

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

I'm curious to hear what put FlashForward over the edge into "moronically, insultingly stupid".

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Just about everything in the last two episodes, really, but mostly the obvious lack of respect for the viewers' intelligence (I swear, if you cut out the flashbacks-to-the-flashforwards and repetitions of previous scenes, both episodes would clock at barely twenty minutes) and the characters' apparent stupidity ("You spent millions of dollars on a website?" might very well have killed the series as far as I'm concerned, but it's not the only example). I'm also annoyed at how shallow the exploration of the whole free will/predestination question has been. There's a scene in the last episode where John Cho has the opportunity to arrest someone for drug possession, which would prevent them from getting the job they saw themselves performing in the flashforward. We never find out what he does, but why aren't people everywhere performing that kind of experiment? I know the show is focusing on the investigation (such as it is), but I would have liked to see a little more consideration of this issue - something just a tad more sophisticated than a million repetitions of 'maybe you can change the future!' -'but what if I can't?' -'you've got to have faith!'

Anonymous said...

I'd forgive FlashForward a lot if they ever showed someone cutting off one of their fingers to settle the question. Everyone's seen themselves with ten fingers in the future, and a prosthetic wouldn't bend convincingly.
Gareth

Todd C. Murry said...

He, he. I agree with almost everything you said, with the cabveat that I'd be a little more inclined to give SGU some leeway, as the other two shows both took some time to climb into their comfort zones (Although it arguably took Atlantis over half its run, and the show does not have any (as far as I can see) miscastings as fatal as Tori Higginson. I too have been surprised that Ming Na seems non existent - I don't keep up with behind the scenes stuff, but is there something going on?

Flashforward, indeed, has huge, huge credibility issues now. From the international instantaneous crow population server, to the "c'mon, FBI agents, let's go to Germany free a war criminal" gambit that made no sense ("we've been played, indeed"), to the drug bust, to the no-one-is-paying-attention medical stuff (the "I blaced out in the middle" operation never started in the plot, the definition of Addison's disease was changed on the fly and didn't work anyway), the nonsensical is really piling up. It seems like the work of a smart 4th grader who likes Lost. Also, the humor is reeeaaally badly played so much so that I, who usually take my homophobia with a grain of salt, found the two-grown-men-grimace-at-the-thought-of-man-on-man-mouth-to-mouth unbearable. Truly terribly thought out. I liked the idea of the nazi who knows something (I like comics, though, so consider the source) and even the female terrorist, but as much as those interviews were a little fun, they were mostly internet reasearched randomness (an old sufi parable? are you shitting me? glad agent Shakespeare knew the language) and everything around the cat and mouse was botched, botched, botched.

I don't think any Nurse show that isn't either exploitation (a la Aaron Spelling) or a well produced cable character study (I haven't seen Nurse Jackie, so I don't know if this applies) has any chance at all. People like comfortable stereotypes like your saintly nurses and callous incompetent doctors, but they are not so simple that they actually want to watch something that is just there to confirm their delusions. I think it is human nature that medical shows need some core of idealism, and that the "good" doctors (there may be bad ones) must be shown to be the torchbearers.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

the humor is reeeaaally badly played so much so that I, who usually take my homophobia with a grain of salt, found the two-grown-men-grimace-at-the-thought-of-man-on-man-mouth-to-mouth unbearable

To be fair, I think what they're grimacing over is the fact that the mouth-to-mouth recipient had been drowning in a urinal, and thus, presumably, in his own urine. But then, I find bathroom humor only slightly less objectionable than homophobia humor.

I would definitely call Nurse Jackie a well produced character study, which shies away from complete glorification or vilification of any of its characters. As I said, I find it a bit chilly - I can't connect to most of the characters, and I often feel that its humor errs on the side of being broad rather than black - but it's several cuts above the three shows I talk about here, and Edie Falco gives a very fine performance in the lead.

(Also, I wasn't terrifically attached to Tori Higginson's character on SGA, but really don't think that was a casting issue but a problem with the writing for that character. At first I thought this was just another case of Stargate writers not knowing how to write women, but now I suspect that they simply had no idea what to do with a main character who was a civilian diplomat, with no military or engineering skills. It's notable that both Amanda Tapping and Robert Picardo got a lot less screen time than Higginson did when they took over her role.)

Todd C. Murry said...

Not to drive this sub-sub discussion into the ground, but I really liked Tori Higginson in the couple of episodes of SG-1 they showed her in pre Atlantis, and attributed it to the fact that her role was one of a driven bureaucratic type who, nonetheless, cared about what she was doing. Thus, its hard for me to say if the problem with casting a bureaucrat as the leader in a sci-fi action show was that the actress' (for only being able to exude a certain quality of authority) or the fact that they tried to fit her original character concept (square peg) into a unsuitable new job (round hole). I never thought her raw acting ability was a problem, though she overused some facial tics.

Anonymous said...

SGU has some problems, especially with the body swapping thing(really why not just body swap with some technical folks who could be of use figuring out the ship, the SGC is full of such persons)and the fact that most of the characters have no real purpose other than to fill out the roster. The show jsut seems like it was slapped together in a marketing managers office with writers brought in after the fact to add some dialogue. Not much thinking going on in this creative process I'm afraid.

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