Thursday, September 16, 2010

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2010 Edition

Last year the fall pilot season just went on and on and on and on, so I appreciate that this year the pilots come in two convenient clumps--a small one this week and a tsunami of new TV on the week of the 20th (AMC's The Walking Dead is the outlier at the end of the October, but hell, they know we're all going to watch whenever it airs--did you see the trailer?).  I also appreciate that, with only one exception, nothing I've watched so far has been a punishment to sit through, even if I'm not ready to sign up for any of these shows just yet. 
  • Hellcats - Television Without Pity has spent the entire summer decrying this series as the worst affront to the television medium since Philo T. Farnsworth dreamed the contraption up, so it was a bit of a surprise to discover a reasonably watchable pilot.  I'm not saying that I'm going to follow the show, which seems intended mainly as an intermediate step for Disney channel starlets and their fans, but that's mainly because there's nothing here that interests me rather than that the show is terrible.  The pilot sees pre-law student Marti lose her scholarship and try out for her college's championship-winning cheerleading team--whom she, being a rebel and a free spirit (meaning she wears a leather jacket and lots of eyeliner, and rides her bicycle aggressively around campus), naturally reviles--only to reveal herself as a natural who will bring a fresh new spirit to the team and might win them the championship again.  In other words, this show is what you'd get if you threw Glee, High School Musical, and Bring It On into a blender, hence my lack of interest, but the characters are nice enough (the juvenile ones, at least--there's also a plot involving the team coach and her romantic history with the new football coach that is entirely uninteresting), and the pilot moves, despite, or perhaps because, of its frequent segues into dance sequences set to pop songs heavy on the shouting and power chords, which have the same appeal as the songs did on Glee before the novelty wore off and you noticed that the writing and the characters were both terrible.  The pilot does gesture in some interesting directions, such as Marti's conflicted feelings towards her Southern, working class roots and her frequently drunk mother, though it fails to go anywhere with them.  It also fails to ask the one question I would like to see a show about cheerleaders grapple with.  Marti's disdain for cheerleaders, whom she calls professional groupies, is answered by their insistence that they are athletes, and there's plenty of proof of this in the pilot's dance sequences, but no one asks the question of why, if cheerleading is a sport in its own right, is it still shackled to men's sports teams.  That's obviously not an issue that Hellcats, which is more interested in telling the much-told story about an outsider girl who joins an in-group and loses touch with her roots, is interested in raising.  Still, if you're in the market for another iteration of this story, there are probably worse options out there.

  • Terriers - Speaking of new iterations of much-told stories, Terriers is treading some familiar ground.  The main character, Hank Dolworth (Donal Logue), is a cop thrown off the force for alcoholism who is just starting to put his life back together, working low-level private detective jobs with his carefree young partner Britt Pollack (an extremely enjoyable Michael Raymond-James).  They stumble upon a real case when an old drinking friend of Hank's asks him to find his daughter, who has disappeared, and end up tangling with a powerful and connected real estate developer.  These are all very familiar beats, but Terriers handles them well.  Logue and Raymond-James have a nice rapport, and it's fun to watch them trade zingers or grouse at one another.  The mystery is not particularly mystifying, but the characters don't pretend otherwise, and the meat of the story is in watching Hank and Britt do the necessary legwork while playing off one another, then try to clean up the mess they've stumbled onto.  The other characters--Hank's ex-wife and ex-partner, both of whom have moved on with their lives, Britt's girlfriend, who is trying to push him towards greater commitment--are nicely drawn if, again, familiar types.  The establishment, at the pilot's end, of the developer as a season-long antagonist for Hank, who is stepping up to the plate in a big way, is probably its most surprising and unexpected touch, though it remains to be seen whether the series will concentrate more on standalone stories or on Hank's quest to bring this character down.  At this point I'm unsure whether I'll continue with Terriers--it's sufficiently well done that I don't think I'd be bored or wasting my time, but I've already seen enough shows about hard-bitten detectives, and for a series about a difficult but determined crusader for justice who will take the law into his own hands on occasion, I've already got the excellent Justified.  The next few episodes will tell whether Terriers has its own unique ingredient to add to a familiar, albeit well-crafted, stew.

  • Nikita - I didn't have high hopes for this series, given that it's a remake of a remake, and that neither the Bridget Fonda movie nor the TV series starring Peta Wilson won my heart (I haven't seen the Luc Besson original).  What I didn't realize is that this Nikita is not a straight remake but a sort of sequel.  It starts with Nikita having escaped her handlers, here called Division, after they killed her lover, returning three years later to bring down their operation, which she claims has been co-opted by business interests and no longer answers to the US government.  This makes the choice of Maggie Q, who doesn't possess Fonda or Wilson's vulnerability but is very good as a sarcastic, grungy Nikita, more understandable, though the rest of the cast is unremarkable.  Less persuasive is the parallel story of Alex, a 19-year-old recruit who enters Division's training program, which though an interesting touch in theory--it allows the show to retell the classic Nikita story at the same time as it takes it in a different direction--is peopled with so many young faces, and hits so many of the beats of the school story, that the show comes to feel like Assassin Hogwarts.  There's a nice twist involving Alex at the end of the pilot, but I'm not looking forwards to the inevitable storylines about her enmity with sassy fellow recruit Jaden, or her tortured romance with true believer Thom.  It's good that the new Nikita is trying to be something different from previous iterations, but the story it is telling is not particularly original (kickass female spy tries to take down her evil employers in revenge for the death of her lover is pure Alias, after all) nor so well told as to overcome that lack of originality.  I'm interested enough to keep going for a few episodes, but still not completely sold, especially as the show already has one black mark for replacing the first TV series's terrifying mastermind Madeline with a head female bad guy who is a glorified charm school teacher in charge of making Division's female recruits comfortable with their beauty--and with using it to kill.  In fact, there's probably a lot more to be said about the show's treatment of female bodies--the pilot is not shy about putting Q's on display, participating in her objectification even as it comments on it--but that can wait until the show proves worthwhile in other respects.

  • Outlaw - The first turkey of the season, this series, about supreme court judge (Jimmy Smits, making some unfortunate career decisions) who resigns to fight for the weak and disadvantaged, is clearly angling to be the next The Good Wife--a lawyer show that is as much about politics as it is about law, and whose main character is both an insider and and outsider to the legal profession.  The success, or lack thereof, of this imitation is thoroughly encapsulated in the character of the judge's investigator, who comes off like a tone deaf attempt to crack the success of The Good Wife's Kalinda.  Outlaw's writers have apparently decided that the secret to outdoing Kalinda is to toss her famous reserve out the window and make her as obnoxious as possible, so their investigator is sassy, overtly sexual, and constantly rubs the other characters', and audience's, faces in how awesome she is.  It seems to have completely escaped the writers' notice that Kalinda is, in a lot of ways, a comment on these kinds of characters, who despite their alleged awesomeness have nothing better to do with their time than enable their show's leads, work on their behalf, and scramble for their approval.  A similar tone-deafness informs most of Outlaw, most particularly its political aspect.  Smits's character is a conservative Bush appointee whose recently deceased father was a social justice advocate deeply critical of his son's beliefs and life choices.  His change of heart in the pilot is thus presented as a way of reconnecting with his dead father.  Political convictions have nothing to do with it, and indeed the character seems to have none, beyond mealy-mouthed platitudes about protecting the weak and not allowing legal procedure to take precedence over a man's life.  There is never a sense that this is a man with a great legal mind, or an understanding and love of the law and the constitution.  The quest for justice is instead reconfigured as therapy, a way for Smits to reconnect with his roots and become a better person.  To top it all off, the pilot isn't even a particularly good example of the legal story, choosing instead to play merry hell with just about every aspect of the legal system, including the supreme court's role and mandate within it, so that Smits manages to get his first client exonerated mainly by appealing to the sentiments of the presiding judge rather than through any legal or investigative footwork.  In other words, this is a show that manages to get wrong just about everything that The Good Wife got right, and it can't disappear from the screen fast enough.


Shawn Edrei said...

I rather enjoyed the first season or two of the Peta Wilson series, back when it was about the conflict between a moral person and the amoral organization she was forced to serve: storylines rarely took the predictable or "safe" route, and the writers allowed their audience to question Section One's actions without overtly justifying or vilifying them. (Of course, then it turned into "101 Ways to Cockblock Secret Agents", and the twists became absolutely ludicrous, but that, as Michael Ende would say, is another story for another time...)

I think that's what's missing from the Maggie Q version - well, that and the fact that, as you pointed out, Melinda Clarke is a very poor substitute for the enigmatic Alberta Watson: the pilot makes it abundantly clear that Division is corrupt, and Nikita is therefore entirely justified in bringing it down. There's no moral ambiguity at all, no suggestion that her vengeance might come with unintended consequences for the world.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

the pilot makes it abundantly clear that Division is corrupt, and Nikita is therefore entirely justified in bringing it down

Yes, that's a good point. The Wilson Nikita made it very clear that Section One was fighting some pretty bad people whose tactics were just as dirty as Section's, and in fact concluded with Nikita deciding to head up Section in order to continue its work.

William Preston said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William Preston said...

You should see the Luc Besson film. It's wonderful nonsense, really, but Besson creates, as usual, a visually arresting narrative pulled forward by the strength of its images. Probably everything cool about the film has been harvested and reproduced in the subsequent thefts (none of which I've seen), but I suggest you see what started it all.

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