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.
  • 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.


Martin S said...

Overall I agree with your analysis of White Collar, but I have to admint that I actually kind of care for how a scam is done, how a con-artist achieves what he wants and so on. I know it's silly, because of course I know everything in leverage and white collar in this regard has been shown or done in some other show or film one time or another, but still.. for example while maybe not a high point of television I did enjoy the prison break scheme of Bomer in the first episode. I hope for more in this regard. I hope he gets rid of the hat though.

Since I don't care much for Jane Austen I have no opinion about EMMA. ;)

About V I think you downplay Baccarin's and most of the other visitor-performances by just mentioning them kind of in passing a bit too much. Even knowing what they are and what they want they really gave me the creeps. Absolutely brilliant performance so far. As well as the tv-guy. I agree about Mitchell though. Anyway, about Joel Gretsch - has he some kind of secret alien-contract to appear in nearly every new science fiction tv "event"?? Creepy. Ah, I just saw on wikipedia that he is married to JT Kirks daughter, noooow it all makes sense. ;-) So, I wouldn't give up on V just yet and will watch at least the mini-series to the end.
I have to second your friends that rewatched the original V as adults. While it was one of my favorites as a child (surely in my top3), I really found it quite lacking watching it again 15 years later.

ibmiller said...

Can I say how cool it is that you included Emma with your pilot reviews? I very much enjoyed it, though I agree it's far from consistent in quality. I do think that using travelling and an expanded world as a metaphor for Emma's maturity has some justification in the novel, though it is certainly a different take on the novel - the references to the seaside in the original have always been something I've missed in previous adaptations. I'm curious as to why you felt Emma's insult of Miss Bates failed, as I thought the psychologizing of Miss Bates and Tamsin Grieg's portrayal actually built enough sympathy for the character that I actually cared about her as a person, instead of merely being sorry that Emma finally gave in to the annoyance I felt with the character myself. I like your list of memorable Austen roles - especially Olivia Williams as Jane Fairfax - sadly missed in this new adaptation. And the arguments between Emma and Mr. Knightley seem to me also very high points. Though I have to say that as Garai is one of my favorite working actresses (she was one of the main reasons I looked forward to the adaptation) and I never watched more than one full episode of BSG (though I have appreciated Sackoff's work in the bits I've seen), the comparison never occured to me (and since I rather disliked Paltrow's performances, and a lot of that adaptation in general, I came away a bit more impressed with her performance).

As for V, there is one reason and one reason alone I had for even being slightly interested (since I have absolutely no memory of the original): watching another Firefly alum's latest project. And it didn't look like that would be that much of a reason, as I have to wonder how much depth and complexity can be found in her character role, despite being "fantastically creepy." Oh, well.

Kit said...

New!V is staggeringly bad. It completely missed the boat by making the Visitors a terrorism allegory instead of a fascism allegory. Alien lizard ninjas lurking in basements that you can beat up with crowbars are not scary. Alien lizard fascists controlling your own human police force are scary. That's what made the original frightening- the sense that the heroes were surrounded on all sides by human collaborators.

The depressing irony is that the writers could still have used the show to take a swipe at the Obama administration, because you can use an anti-fascism story against any sitting government (and given the human rights record of the Obama DOJ they might even have a case). It's just that in order to do that you have to be anti-fascist yourself, and the guys writing this are so neoconservative that they can't imagine a world in which the local WASP civil authorities are the bad guys, not evil alien infiltrators. So clearly the threat must take the form of universal health care. Because we all know Canada is a horrific dystopia.

Also, I am depressed but not remotely surprised to find that we've gone from a 1980s series in which the resistance contained important African-American, Hispanic, Jewish and Asian members to a 2000s series in which the only non-white protagonist is actually an alien lizard. Yay modernity.

ServalAnna was pretty good, though.

Hal Duncan said...

I can't help watching the new V in light of British nutjob David Icke's conspiracy theory, in which alien people-eating lizards are running the NWO. These are schizoid delusions, clearly products of a nervous breakdown and probably part-inspired by the original show, and you could write them off as the florid imaginings of an utter crank... except that he's taken it in a deeply dodgy anti-semitic direction. (See the Wikipedia article on him for details.) It's all very Protocols of the Elders of Sion.

Now, where the old V was a neat fascism allegory (yeah, I can imagine it not standing the test of time but it had the balls to say, "The Holocaust could happen here," with an integrity and commitment I respect,) the new V has evil alien Others conspiring to shape human history, setting nations at war with one another, blah blah blah -- all the figurative rhetoric of the propaganda created by the fascists themselves. I find it deeply fucking disturbing. One hero is a Man of God preaching distrust of the Other, the other a WASP FBI agent defending her nation from (swarthy?) foreign infiltrators now suddenly clued-in to a dreaded Enemy Within. The (liberal?) media is in on it, represented by your unprincipled opportunist newscaster. And, yeah, the one black guy is a fucking turncoat lizard. Are they deliberately anti-Obama or just blind to subtext and unconsciusly pandering to the worst right-wing bullshit? I don't really care. What turns my stomach is they're trading in the iconography of xenophobic paranoia with pretty much direct links to fascism via Icke. And Icke may be British but I think he's pretty big among that scene of worldwide New Age nutjobs.

Kit said...

@ Hal

Exactly! It's like Leni Riefenstahl decided to do a fascist remake of the original. Except if she were directing it the show would probably suck less.

Foxessa said...

Why do television and film adaptors of Emma insist upon making Emma a blonde?

Love, C.

Anonymous said...

Well, they don't - Kate Beckinsale wasn't.

But in this series, it wasn't just Emma - it was also Harriet and Mrs. Elton. Which made for some rather, um, staggeringly blonde tableaux.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I agree about Baccarin, but I can't say that I was particularly struck by any of the other actors playing aliens (and the evil blonde temptress was quite a cliche). Gretsch, as I recall, starred in The 4400, whose producers are also involved with V, so that probably explains his prevalence, though in general I've noticed that SF actors tend to stay in SF shows.


Though I agree that Tamsin Grieg did a good job as Miss Bates, the insult scene just didn't seem to have enough bite. I don't know about you, but every time I read the novel or watch an adaptation of it I find myself dreading it, and Welch's version just didn't seem awful enough - she drew the insult out, while granting Emma the extenuating circumstances of being tired and out of sorts, instead of playing it, as I think the novel does, as a momentary lapse in Emma's manners, which lead her to say what she's always thinking.

Kit, Hal:

I go back and forth over whether V's creators are actually aware of their own subtext or whether, as Hal says, they're trading in fascist iconography without grasping its significance. But I'm inclined to think it's the latter. The show strikes me as such a patchwork, its dominant themes so clearly lifted out of more self-aware pieces of entertainment, that I can't help but feel that the thought process behind it was more along the lines of 'well, everyone knows that the reporter is a craven coward obsessed with his own fame. That's how it went in [twelve other shows and movies]' rather than a deliberate statement about the liberal media (see also the sole black character being an alien).

That said, it's not that there is no fear of government running through the pilot. It's just that the terms of this theme aren't anti-fascist, they're libertarian. So the problem isn't that the government is evil/infiltrated by aliens, but the very fact that it exists in the first place. Which, again, is something the crops up quite often in science fiction series.


I confess, 'spoiled, rich, self-absorbed brat = blonde' is a stereotype that I've been imprinted with, though as ibmiller says, there was a profusion of blonde women this time around.

Kit said...

@ Abigail:

I agree that much of the fascist iconography in the show is the result of stupidity rather than malice, or rather, the sort of stupid malice that cannot recognize its own ancestry. (Although I think that anti-Obama stuff is deliberate.)

But I think you're overly optimistic if you're expecting a coherent Firefly-esque "the government is always evil even when it's trying to help" libertarian message out of this thing. I think we're looking at a product of that uniquely American school of poitical thought that says "the government is always evil when it is trying to help but always good when using coercive force"- health care is evil but secret prisons and wars are great. Future episodes will decide, but I don't think it's a coincidence that our new Julie is an FBI anti-terrorism agent rather than a biochemist.

It's analagous to making Mal Reynolds an Alliance customs officer.

Nic said...

"spoiled, rich, self-absorbed brat = blonde"


Abigail Nussbaum said...

Sorry! How about 'spoiled, rich, self-absorbed brat => blonde'?

Foxessa said...

Alas, I haven't seen the Bickensale.

And Paltrow's production was just so -- smooth. As with most Austen and other 'costume' dramadies too, everything fits so very well, the teeth and skin are so perfect, and the dung is never seen. Not in all productions, of course. Which is one of the many reasons my favorite Austen adaptation is the 1983 BBC version of Mansfield Park -- it also has the very best Crawfords -- and their costumes!

It is also a very sexy Mansfield Park thanks to the actors' skills -- for they are generally, with the exceptions of the Crawfords, not particularly attractive -- Sylvestra Le Touzel who plays Fanny possesses a jaw so heavy she could shovel snow with it. The eye play is beyond splendid.

Isn't Austen's Emma a brunette?

Love, C.

Foxessa said...

O, and I've been a blonde all my life, but alas, never rich and spoiled, nor yet a brat.

Love, c.

ibmiller said...

It's never made clear in Austen's books what color Emma's hair is - the only quantitative physical detail given is that she has hazel eyes (which is so ambiguous as to be almost as unhelpful as no answer at all). Harriet's hair is given by Austen as blonde, and the Beckinsale adaptation chose to contrast the two (a similar choice is often made in P&P adaptations with contrasting Lizzy and Jane, with Jane usually, but not always (the 1980s version) being the blonde). The Paltrow version chose to do contrast as well, but by ignoring the book's description of Harriet and making her a red/brunette while Emma steals the blonde. The Garai chooses to keep Harriet blonde, but additionally makes Emma and Mrs. Elton ones as well.

Short note on dung - there is some on the London streets of the 95 S&S with Emma Thompson.

Foxessa said...

That one too had a far too nice -- expensive -- wardrobe and jewels for the ladies of S&S! Or so it seemed to me from what I've taken away regarding the annual income and budget for them, once their brother's wife persuades him that they really should be giving HIM their money since they neither needed nor wanted nor were entitled to it!

Love, C.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

To be fair, Elinor and Marianne are rich young women up until their father's death at the start of the novel. It makes sense that they'd have nice clothes and jewelry, and that they'd take these with them upon leaving Norland - bad as their brother is, I don't think he'd stoop to tearing the clothes off his sisters' backs. As I recall, in the ball scene, Willoughby's fiancee snidely comments that their dresses are old-fashioned, which to me suggests that they're wearing their good clothes from a season or two back.

Anyway, if you want clothing porn, I strongly recommend the new Emma, and with much more justification, as Emma is a rich young woman throughout the story.

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