- White Collar - Yet another entry in the subgenre of charming, effervescent crimesolving dramedies whose main appeal is their characters and humor (see also Monk, Psych, Leverage), White Collar stars Matt Bomer (the criminally underused Bryce Larkin on Chuck) as a master forger and art thief, and Tim DeKay (Jonesy from Carnivalé) as the FBI agent who catches him and then recruits him to work in the white collar crime division. Frothy enterprises of this variety are usually a pretty delicate balancing act--the plots have to be tight enough to obscure their silliness; the character interactions compelling but not too deep or angsty--and White Collar doesn't seem to have found that sweet spot. The three episodes I've seen have been slack, and though Bomer and DeKay play well off each other, most of their meaningful interactions are with other characters with whom they have less crackle and pop. Also disappointing is the fact that, though the pilot featured two interesting female characters--a wealthy society matron whom Bomer's character charms into giving him a swanky place to stay, and a lesbian FBI agent (whose preference neatly obviated the sexual tension between the top-billed single female character and the single male lead which often seems obligatory in shows of this type)--in subsequent episodes these have been, respectively, disappeared and replaced. Though I'm glad to see The Middleman's Natalie Morales getting work, her job in the first episode of the season seems to have been to wear three different revealing outfits, and in the second, to moon over Bomer's character. Which is a shame, because even within the restrictions of its deliberately shallow format, White Collar's pilot gestured at issues of class and wealth--both Bomer and DeKay's characters are middle or working class people moving in upper class circles, and they have very different attitudes towards the finer things in life--and with Leverage already starting to go off the boil, I was in the market for a new show of this type.
- Emma - Again, not a fall pilot, but the BBC's latest adaptation of the Jane Austen novel. Between the already quite good Gwyneth Paltrow film adaptation, the still-painful memories of the abysmal "Jane Austen Season," a series of cut-rate, uninspired adaptations of several other Austen novels from a few years ago, and the fact that writer Sandy Welch's most prominent work is a mediocre version of Jane Eyre from 2006, I had very low hopes for this miniseries, but it turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It's not perfect, by any means, and especially when considered as an adaptation--though Emma is by no means an uneventful novel, four hours seems to have been too long for Welch, mainly because she has drastically reduced Harriet's presence in the story. This alteration seems to be a consequence of Welch's take on the novel, which in her hands becomes a meditation on the warring desires to make a home for oneself and go out to see the world--Emma representing the former, and Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax the latter. This is, to say the least, a rather strange approach to take with a Jane Austen novel. With the possible exception of Persuasion, it would be impossible to describe any of them as ambivalent on this point, and Emma, which begins with its heroine already the mistress of an estate and ends with her husband leaving his home to join her there, is perhaps the most decisive in extolling the virtues of domesticity. The more Welch stresses this theme, the more she seems to have imposed her own story (one not too dissimilar to the one she told with Jane Eyre) on the original work.
Still, taken as a work in its own right, the miniseries offers many pleasures. Despite her shift in emphasis, Welch hits many of the novel's key scenes beautifully (though not, sadly, its most crucial one, Emma's cruel joke at Miss Bates's expense). After two decades of near-constant Austen adaptation, I've built up a gallery of my favorite character portrayals, some of which crop up even in otherwise dreadful adaptations--the younger Bennet sisters in Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice, Olivia Williams as Jane Fairfax in the Kate Beckinsale Emma--to which we can now add Johnny Lee Miller's turn as Mr. Knightley (all the more notable when one considers that, with the honorable exceptions of Colin Firth's Mr. Darcy and Ciaran Hinds's Captain Wentworth, Austen's male leads tend to fare rather poorly in adaptations, often fading into the wallpaper). Miller plays Knightley as an appealing blend of self-assurance and self-doubt. In the early parts of the miniseries, his abrasive intelligence is proudly on display, but as the story draws on we see his growing awareness that the same qualities that made him an excellent foil for Emma in his capacity as her surrogate older brother might be entirely unappealing in a potential lover. His simultaneous dismissal of the fashionable, flattering young men he views as his rivals for Emma's affections, and growing envy of them as he realizes how ill-suited he is to their manner of courtship, is very well played. Miller has fantastic chemistry with Romola Garai, who plays Emma, and Welch furnishes the two with several magnificent arguments, either embellished from conversations in the novel or invented, which show that chemistry off. Garai herself, though she doesn't quite unseat Gwyneth Paltrow, is very good as Emma, and my main complaint against her is that between her blonde hair, wide mouth, and tendency to smile broadly and bug her eyes, she kept reminding me of how Katee Sackhoff used to play Starbuck in her more lighthearted moments, which as you can imagine is a strange association to make when watching a Regency romance. On the whole, then, Welch's Emma is far from definitive, but it is nevertheless worth a look both for its reflections on the novel and as a piece of entertainment.
- V - In a word, yawn. Like the now-defunct Eastwick, V is a show with a shocking secret that everyone already knows (which is why spoiler campaigns like this are so utterly pointless), but whereas Eastwick tried to compensate for this predictability by cramming its pilot full of events and character introductions, V's premiere is slow and slack, hitting the story's salient points (the aliens have arrived; they're creepily perfect; they're really man-eating lizards) with so little verve and conviction that it feels less like a reboot of the original series and more like a lifeless imitation of it. Given how familiar the story is, it would probably have been impossible for the remake's writers to replicate the original series's eeriness and slowly mounting horror (I say this as someone who watched the original V as a young child, though I know that those who have returned to it as adults have generally come away disappointed), but they don't seem to be aiming for any other tone, and their insistence on following the original's plot makes no sense in light of the changes they've made to its premise. The main character is an FBI agent, who at the end of the pilot has a foolproof way of identifying stealth aliens and definitive proof that they have secretly been on Earth for many years. And yet instead of going to her superiors with what she knows, she forms a resistance group with an admittedly very cute priest. A potentially even greater flaw is the fact that as this lead character, Elizabeth Mitchell has all the charisma and range of expression of a cucumber. If it didn't seem more than likely that V will prove a dud, I'd wish that Mitchell had switched roles with FlashForward's Sonya Walger, who is clearly better suited to the task of acting as a counterweight to Morena Baccarin's fantastically creepy alien leader.
On a side-note, the show's writers and actors can protest all they like, but if they're not deliberately writing V as anti-Obama propaganda, they're using so many of its tools and buzzwords (which are, as Fred Clarke repeatedly tells us, also the tools and buzzwords of evangelical rapture-nuts) as to make no difference. For pity's sake, the pilot could not have stressed that the evil aliens' evil plan for evil world domination begins with universal healthcare any more if there had been title cards to that effect. Which, when you think of it, is a neat trick, because at the same time that they're telling us that peacemakers who urge humanity to embrace its nobler urges are actually wannabe tyrants secretly plotting our demise, the writers are also announcing that all the recent expressions of humanity's worst urges--war, genocide, terrorism, racial and religious strife--have happened at those same aliens' instigation. So we don't have to listen to those pesky peacemakers, because really, we're rather peaceful ourselves, when left to our own devices? Makes perfect sense.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2009 Edition, Part 4
My God, it will not end. Progress report: Community and The Good Wife remain very good. Stargate: Universe seems to be using the loosest possible interpretation of 'plot' (it would be nice to think that the two episodes in which the characters gloomily contemplate their imminent demise as the ship flies straight towards a star, only for its automated systems to save them at the last minute, represent the nadir of the show's storytelling, but as we're only seven episodes in that seems unlikely) while expending most of its energy on soapy shenanigans. But since most of the characters are underdeveloped, the relationships between the main castmembers are nearly nonexistent, and the writers show little or no flair for enjoyably trashy, Melrose Place-style plotting, it's hard to care about X's affair with Y and A's unrequited crush on B. The show seems determined to alienate the franchise's core fanbase without doing enough to capture a new one.