Thursday, October 27, 2011

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2011 Edition, Part 3

As fall draws into winter, the new TV pilots grow less frequent and more prestigious.  By which I mean more expensive and featuring more high concepts, but not, as the following write-ups demonstrate, necessarily better. In fact, it's been a lackluster fall.  2 Broke Girls and Pan Am have disappointed me.  Ringer and Revenge haven't, but my expectations from them were never very high.  There's only one new show this fall that is genuinely good (see below), and though that's hardly a tragedy--my TV dance card is too full already--it's depressing that this is the best the medium can come up with.
  • Homeland - For various reasons, I ended up banking the first three episodes of Homeland until my holiday last week, and then real-life events caught up with me in a way that made watching the show without preconceptions and emotional baggage utterly impossible.  Homeland is based on an Israeli series, Chatufim (Prisoners of War), which addressed the national trauma and media circus surrounding the various hostage crises of the last decade.  The latest of these was brought to a profoundly moving close last Tuesday with the release of Gilad Shalit, an event that is probably going to be one of those "where were you when" moments for my generation of Israelis (answer: in front of the TV, in tears).  In the wake of which, I found it very difficult to watch a story in which the rescued captive, Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), is the bad guy, or at least a victim who has been coerced and brainwashed into doing bad things.  It's even harder to see the show take such a matter-of-fact approach to the indifference and cynicism with which Brody is treated by his military superiors and the political establishment, the total lack of medical and psychological support he receives from the military, and the press's disrespect for his and his family's privacy.  I don't know how realistically Homeland depicts the reaction to the rescue of a kidnapped American soldier--at least some of these devices are clearly ways of making the plot flow more smoothly, and a few, such as the military's desire to use Brody as a morale-booster, are components of the show's ambivalent portrait of the military and the government--but with the image of the frail, overwhelmed Shalit before me (especially during his exploitative, invasive interview with Egyptian TV before being handed over to Israeli representatives; the Israeli establishment and press have, thankfully, been a great deal more respectful of his privacy and of his medical and psychological needs), it's hard not to react much more strongly and much more negatively than the show obviously expects me to at the sight of Brody's mistreatment.

    It took a while for me to overcome these visceral reactions, but when I did I found a smart, engaging espionage thriller that not only asks some pointed questions about the surveillance state, as Brody's house is rigged with cameras and microphones that record his and his family's every move, but points an accusing finger at the audience as well, for our voyeuristic desire to know the details of the Brodys' reacclimitization, even as we shake our heads over the press's voracious hounding of them.  In a way, Homeland is a show within a show--a family drama about a damaged man returning from a terrible ordeal and the family who have moved on without him and now must struggle to reintegrate him into their lives, and a spy thriller about a lone wolf CIA analyst who is convinced that he has been turned by his captors, and observes him in the hopes of finding proof.  That character, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), is Homeland's greatest asset.  She reminds me a lot of Battlestar Galactica's Starbuck--both fearless, self-destructive, casually promiscuous, and suffering from some sort of personality disorder (in Carrie's case, an actual mental illness that she conceals from her superiors and medicates with anti-psychotics).  Like Starbuck, Carrie is very good at her job but tends to burn through professional and personal relationships in her zeal to do what she believes is right and her conviction that she alone has a handle on the truth, and Danes and the script do a great job of balancing her competence with genuinely off-putting behavior.  Carrie is a less overwrought portrait of this type than Starbuck, however (she's a great deal less self-absorbed, and less prone to subjecting others to her dysfunction), and Homeland gives us more space to feel ambivalent about her, which to my mind makes her not only more bearable but more interesting.  This is a boon in a show that, on the one hand, positions Carrie as a hero, and on the other hand, gives us little in the way of confirmation that Brody has indeed been turned.  It's unlikely that the whole premise of the series will turn out to be a figment of Carrie's fevered mind, but the show's ambivalence towards both of them, and even more than that, its hints that these two damaged people have more in common with one another than with their friends and loved ones, gives it an extra hint of complexity.

  • Boss - Since the end of The West Wing, political storytelling in American television has tended to focus on the relatively smaller scale of local politics.  Shows like The Good Wife, Treme, and Boardwalk Empire convincingly argue that politics is not a matter of who can come up with the best policy or deliver the most convincing rhetoric, but of who can best maneuver the complicated maze of conflicting personalities and tribal affiliations, amassing enough power to get their own way.  Boss is the latest entry in this group, set, like The Good Wife, in Chicago, and focusing on that grand, often corrupt and byzantine city's mayor, Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer).  As the pilot opens, Kane is diagnosed with an untreatable, Alzheimer's-like degenerative illness, and instead of stepping down sets about, with redoubled enthusiasm, to cement his legacy: untying the endless red tape (and some legitimate objections) standing in the path of new runways at O'Hare airport, and putting a young up-and-comer in the Illinois governor's office.  The show is fast-paced and talky, and won me over with a willingness to demand intelligence from both its audience and its characters as it charts the various interest groups and power centers whom Kane negotiates and strong-arms.  But there are also some of the familiar pitfalls of "serious" cable dramas in the pilot--gratuitous nudity and sex, of course, and also a cynicism about Boss's subject that may cross the line from realism to the kind of faux-realism that glorifies "darkness" as an end in its own right.  The main problem in the Boss pilot is how violent it is, and how unbelievable that violence is in the show's context.  Not only does Kane physically assault a political operative who has displeased him in front of several aides, who neither try to stop him nor react as if he's done anything out of the ordinary, and not only does he "gently remind" his doctor to keep his career-killing diagnosis to herself by dispatching a man to assault her, but the episode ends with him receiving confirmation that the man who has thrown the latest impediment in the path of the new runways has been suitably chastised, in the form of that man's severed ears.  I don't know whether the overdone violence of the pilot is evidence of teething problems or an indication of the tone the show intends to strike, and there's enough that appeals to me about Boss that I'm willing to take another episode or two to find out, but if the violence doesn't tone down very quickly, it'll become impossible for me to take Boss's more intelligent aspects at all seriously.

  • American Horror Story - Last year, FX engaged in the curious experiment of trying to draw out the familiar beats of the boxing movie over a 13-episode season.  I lasted only a few episodes into Lights Out, but most of the reactions to it I saw took the form of complaints that there simply wasn't enough story in this hoary plot to fill out a whole season of TV.  American Horror Story is a similar experiment--its basic plot, dysfunctional family moves into haunted house, is mostly the stuff of movies, and on paper the project of porting it to a television series seems implausible.  Perhaps anticipating this difficulty, Glee creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk try to avoid it by cramming seemingly every single haunted house story in existence into a single location.  Three episodes into the show, the house at its center has been revealed to have been the home of a mad scientist, an illegal abortionist, a family destroyer, a murderous woman scorned, and a gay couple who die by murder-suicide (along the way a psychotic killer drops by to kill two nurses).  This makes, predictably, for some very gruesome and effectively staged murder scenes, and even outside of these--when it focuses on Ben and Vivien Harmon's crumbling marriage, or their daughter Violet's increasing alienation, or the deranged people who have survived living in or near the house but have been affected by it--American Horror Story is very stylish and atmospheric.  It achieves those effects, however, without ever reaching for an emotion as raw as horror, or indeed for anything resembling compassion, empathy, or even interest in most of its characters.  The murders are not events that happen to real people but well-staged tableaux, and though this might be acceptable in a horror story, the living characters, and especially the central family, are equally inhuman and hard to care about, and only become more so as their relationships grow more overwrought under the house's baleful influence.  As if that were not enough, American Horror Story is breathtakingly misogynistic, with every single woman in the series reduced to a shrill, often over-sexualized lunatic, and expresses a weirdly regressive disability fetish in the form of a woman with Down's Syndrome who has a psychic connection to the house.  That device feels so out of place in 2011 that one almost suspects Murphy and Falchuk of having a laugh.  Even if they are, the character is still very offensive, but that uncertainty about how seriously we're expected to take anything that happens on the show is the source of its weird appeal.  As it piles gruesome murders, kinky sex scenes, and utterly absurd character interactions one on top of the other--all while looking like, and probably costing, a million bucks--American Horror Story achieves, deliberately or not, a level of camp that renders it oddly compelling.  It's bad, but it's never boring.  I don't have much hope that the haunted house story will resolve in a satisfying or interesting way by the end of the season (or at all), but it will be interesting to see if the show can sustain its gonzo tone, and my half-disgusted, half-delighted interest, for 13 episodes.

  • Once Upon a Time and Grimm - If effective horror is relatively common in film and TV, effective fantasy--especially the kind that requires elaborate worldbuilding--is fairly uncommon, and the filmed examples of the genre tend to either fall into the trap of cutesiness, or veer into horror, as these two shows, both of which imagine that the heroes and villains of fairy tales are real and living in the real world, respectively demonstrate.  As its name suggests, Once Upon a Time takes the Disney approach to fairy tales.  In one of the pilot's plot strands, bounty hunter Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison, who seems, like Lisa Edelstein and Olivia Wilde, to be cashing in on her karmic payback for having played a female character on House for so long; she's not very good in Once Upon a Time, but then the show doesn't give her much to work with) is contacted by the son she gave up for adoption ten years ago (played by a child actor who is either bad or needs elocution lessons, possibly both) and travels with him to Storybrooke, Maine, where he insists that the townspeople are enchanted fairy tale characters who need Emma to rescue them.  In the second plot strand, Snow White and Prince Charming's wedding is crashed by the Evil Queen, who promises to curse them and "take away all your happy endings."  Their only hope, offered to them by the morally ambiguous Rumplestiltskin (Robert Carlyle, proving that your career can actually go downhill from Stargate: Universe), is to spirit away their child, Emma, so she can return and rescue them.  If this sounds more like a prologue than the stuff of a whole pilot, then I've come close to describing how slack and underperforming Once Upon a Time's opening hour is, but that's not even the show's greatest fault.  That would be the infuriating laziness of the fairy tale world's construction, which amounts to little more than a few snazzy costumes, and in all other respects not only looks like a Hallmark movie, but is characterized by the same tone-deaf earnestness that renders these so completely inert.  The show's creators put so little work into winning us over to the storybook world, or creating a sense of wonder and numisnousness, that when characters say things like "I can't believe it!  Evil can't win!" they seem as ridiculous as that line does in print.  In the real world, meanwhile, there's no sense of what Storybrooke is like as a town, nor why living there is such a punishment for the fairy tale characters.  It may be that later episodes will illuminate the town and show us its dark underbelly (though that is not only something the pilot should have done, but had more than enough room for), but so far the show seems to be saying that hell on earth is an affluent, picturesque small town, which is actually quite insulting to people who live in genuine poverty and hardship.

    On the other hand, Once Upon a Time does establish that the three major players in its story--Emma, Snow White, and the Evil Queen--are all women, while in Grimm women are, with only one exception, victims, villains (and not even boss villains but their lackeys), or oblivious, endangered love interests.  As that description suggests, Grimm is essentially a retread of Supernatural, with main character Nick Burckhardt (David Giuntoli) learning that he is descended from the Brothers Grimm, and thus endowed with magical powers that allow him to battle and destroy evil fairy tale monsters.  Predictably, given the horror-tinged take on its subject, Grimm is a lot more effective at creating atmosphere than Once Upon a Time, but it's also a lot wittier about combining fairy tales with the modern world.  There's more punch to the pilot's opening minutes, in which a jogger in a red hoodie is attacked as she runs through the woods while the Eurythmics's "Sweet Dreams" blares on the soundtrack, than there is in all of the Once Upon a Time pilot.  On the other hand, the pilot's actual plot, in which Nick investigates the jogger's murder, is soporific, and the scenes in which he discovers his legacy--imparted to him by his aunt, a former monster-killer who might turn out to be an interesting character, but who spends the pilot either dying or comatose--are so by the numbers that I might have scripted them myself.  In the end, for all its atmosphere, Grimm's flaws are the same as Once Upon a Time's--a thin plot and even thinner characters, and an apparent reliance on its fantastic premise winning it an audience without actually doing any work to develop that premise into something new or interesting.


Anonymous said...

I haven't seen any of these shows, but the premise of Homeland seems implausible. Prisoners being "turned" or "brainwashed" into doing specific things after their release is science fiction. As for Once Upon A Time, I thought the punishment for the fairy-tale characters would be to grow old and die of a degenerative disease. That's what happens to us in the real world after all, and never in fairy tales.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

To Homeland's credit, it hasn't (yet) pulled out the full Manchurian Candidate brainwashing trope. Rather it is hinting that Brody is acting - or will act - out of a sense of betrayed loyalty. There's a scene in the third episode in which he tells an interviewer that his captors taunted him by telling him that his government, his colleagues in the military, and even his wife had abandoned him, and this - as he is slowly realizing - is exactly what happened. So I can see the show building an organic argument for his shift in loyalties, though again we haven't had confirmation that he is a sleeper agent.

Re: Once Upon a Time, the ravages of time would be one punishment for fairy tale creatures, but the pilot establishes that Storybrooke is frozen in time. Emma is 28, for example, but her parents are the same age they were when she was born.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, I'll have to watch these when they come to New Zealand. It's pretty strange that Once has avoided an obvious "punishment" by adding another fantasy element.

Anonymous said...

Prince Charming is in a coma, Snow White loses her daughter and her grandson, the evil Queen is mayor and Rumpelstiltskin owns the town. I have no idea why anyone would wonder whether the evil Queen hasn't successfully taken away the happy endings. We won't have a good idea whether Once Upon a Time will work as a series til the second premiere (aka first regular episode.)

Starbuck morphed smoothly into a nonhumn "character." The similarity between her and Carrie warns me away from Homeland. A contemporary realist drama really needs human characters, not cool ones.

Anonymous said...

Grimm isn't any great shakes, but one thing I've enjoyed about it so far is how it approaches integrating the supernatural into the human world. Unlike Supernatural, where monsters basically exist to be killed, or Buffy/Angel, where the few that don't exist to be killed live in a self-segregated shadow communities, Grimm's monsters are basically fantastical hyphenated Americans, and Nick (so far) treats the ones that kill like he would human committing comparable crimes.

Like how in the second episode, when Nick just levels with the goldilocks bears about them needing to help him stop their son from committing murder. It's nice to see a hunter show where said hunter doesn't take his own humanity as license to dispense Biblical justice on anything with fur or fangs. Nick might be a Grimm but he hasn't yet thrown away the sensibilities of a modern police officer.

Tamara said...

Having watched the Once Upon a Time pilot, I agree that its stunning lousily executed (my favorite worst touch was the hoop skirt and cleavage fairy, I think.) But I have to quibble with the notion its got a relatively positive approach to women. The Evil Queen is evil, and a bad mother, by dint of...having a career. Its actually so amazingly heavy handed that it's extremely easy to root for her, and not in some subversive, the-show-I-want-to-see, sympathy for devil way either - I just like her better, as a person, than anyone else. (and Jewish Rymplestilskin too.)

So, it's appaling...but I wasn't entirely bored. er, I think i'll go watch another episode...

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I probably should have said that while Once Upon a Time is a story in which women are the movers and shakers, it's also a story about women as mothers - Snow White, who has lost her child, Emma, who gave hers up, and the Evil Queen, who is a Bad Mother (though from the pilot, at least, my sense wasn't that she was supposed to be evil because she had a job, but because she doesn't love Henry). That's something that could be done very well or very badly, and the pilot doesn't really give you a sense of which way the show will go in that sense. It's so badly done in other respects, though, that I'm not planning to keep watching and find out.

Tamara said...

Having watched episodes 2&3, I think it gets both better and worse. The fairy tale interludes are going to stick around, apparently - they're like the flashbacks in LOST, and they're still unbelievably awful.

The real-world stories get, I think, a bit better (not *good*. Nowhere near) and I suppose at this point its me writing things onto the show that aren't there really, but the conflict Emma and the Queen have over Henry is reasonably meaty. Despite the show spelling out that 'she doesn't love him', it stays ambiguous about whether the Queen actually knows the truth. (or maybe just hasn't made it's mind up, actually. Come to think of it, I lean to the assumption that it's bad, lazy, inconsistent writing rather than deliberate nuance, but one works with what one has.) I kind of don't buy that it's that simple, because raising a child for ten years as some kind of nefarious plot and then asking the question of whether there really is or is not some attachment - on both ends - there, is fairly compelling to me.

Of course, i'm not at all convinced that the show doesn't think the Queen really doesn't love him, or even thinks she loves him, at all, and he should go with Emma and its Just That Simple. But thats a more boring show and at this point i'm watching the one in my head.

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