Friday, September 30, 2011

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2011 Edition, Part 2

Happy 5772, everyone!  Let us ring in the new year with more reviews of fall TV pilots!  The second week of the new season has been a bit quieter than the first, with fewer shows that I found something to write about (not listed here are Charlie's Angels, which is atrocious but not even hilariously so, Prime Suspect, which is nicely done but rather pointless given the existence of the original, and Suburgatory, which is cute but probably not my thing, plus I can't get over how much the lead has been made to look like Emma Stone).  From here on in it's a slow trickle of new shows all the way into November, a few of which sound promising, but I think it's telling that even those shows that I've liked this year, such as Revenge and Pan Am and Terra Nova below, have fallen into the trashy fun category, not the smart and thought-provoking one.  No one, so far, seems to be making that kind of show this year.
  • Pan Am - I didn't say anything in my last write-up about The Playboy Club because there's really not much to add to the near-unanimous round of denunciations the show has received (I'm particularly fond of this review, which not only lays into the show for its failures of plot and character, but gives the floor to an actual former Playboy Bunny who castigates it for historical inaccuracy).  Pan Am shares a lot of similarities with The Playboy Club.  Both shows are clearly attempts to cash in on the 60s craze inspired by Mad Men, both have identified sexual politics and the sexual revolution as the key ingredient in the AMC show's appeal which they can repackage and market to a broader audience, and both have chosen to focus on a female-only profession that emerged in that era and was, in a large part, about selling beauty and hospitality, while arguing that this profession was also empowering and liberating.  Aside from the fact that the Playboy Club pilot is shlocky and overdone while Pan Am's is sharp and, despite most of its action taking place aboard a single intercontinental flight, effortlessly engaging, the key difference between the shows is that Pan Am gets that it needs to work hard to make its central argument (meanwhile, The Playboy Club settles for having Hugh Hefner tell us that Playboy bunnies were "the only women who could do anything and be anyone they wanted").

    To this end Pan Am fields several characters who come to stewarding for different reasons--Christina Ricci's seasoned purser is an East Village bohemian who wants to see the world, while newbie Margot Robbie has run away from her parents and fiancé--and does a good job of building these characters into something more than stereotypes.  It also highlights some of the darker aspects of the profession--the stewardesses are introduced to us being weighed before their flight, and Karin Vanasse is affecting as her character is first thrilled to see a passenger with whom she'd enjoyed a tryst in Rome, then crushed when he turns out to be flying with his wife and son.  Meanwhile, the most intriguing character is Kelli Garner's, whose Kate has been recruited by the CIA, in a plot point that could lead to some interesting stories, and build on the notion of women venturing into previously unexplored professional territory, without straining credulity.  It's true that, especially in its final minutes, the pilot leans too heavily into the notion that being a stewardess in the 60s was not only a feminist act but somehow embodied and perhaps even encapsulated feminism, and this is perhaps a worrying sign of things to come (especially as the final shot is of the four main characters, done up to the nines and striding into their plane as if they'd just walked out of a circa-1962 Pan Am ad, while an awe-struck little girl looks on).  And it's also true, and equally worrying, that though the pilot does a good job of establishing the tone of its period setting and introducing its characters, it does little to convincingly argue that you can tell interesting stories about the lives of Pan Am stewardesses week in and out.  Still, there's enough verve here, and the characters are interesting enough in themselves, that I'm willing to give the show a few more weeks to prove itself.

  • A Gifted Man and Hart of Dixie - At first glance, these two shows, both about hotshot New York surgeons who learn a lesson in humility when life throws them a curveball and forces them to connect emotionally with their patients, seem like another example of how two networks will take the same concept and do it very well or very badly, as we've already seen this season with Ringer and Revenge, The Playboy Club and Pan Am.  But the truth is that though Hart of Dixie is terrible and A Gifted Man is very well done, neither one of them can escape the pernicious, infuriating message at their core.  In Hart, Rachel Bilson is a young surgeon bucking for a cardiothoracic fellowship when she's informed by the chief of surgery that she is too cold and uncaring towards her patients and needs to develop her people skills by working as a GP.  The show somehow tops this for implausibility when Bilson chooses to serve out her sentence as a small-town doctor in Alabama.  The Southern clichés come in hot and heavy, and by the end of the predictable, unfunny pilot Bilson has thawed towards the town's charms (or perhaps the charms of designated love interest Scott Porter) and decides to stay where she can "do some good."  A Gifted Man looks a lot more respectable than this, but its premise is, if anything, even sillier.  Neurosurgeon Patrick Wilson is career-driven and at the top of his game when he's visited by the ghost of his do-gooder, free clinic doctor ex-wife (Jennifer Ehle) who encourages him to open his heart and, coincidentally, his practice to the deserving poor.  Besides the high production values, the pilot's greatest asset is its two leads.  Ehle classes up a character who is, on paper, a rather dispiriting proposition, a woman who quite literally has nothing to live for except enabling the self-improvement of her love interest, and Wilson does a lot more than the script to sow ambivalence into the notion that his character needs to be cured of his arrogance and ambition--the pleasure he takes in his achievements, and his keen intelligence, are palpable in his performance.

    But well made or cliché-ridden, both shows are ultimately devoted to arguing that there is something wrong with trying to be the best at your job, and that for a doctor, it's more important to connect with your patients than to be a good surgeon.  It's a sappy, anti-intellectual moral that prioritizes niceness over competence, and vilifies the choice to prioritize professional achievements--even if those achievements help you save lives--over personal happiness.  In A Gifted Man in particular, there's a rather disquieting undertone to the show's argument that Wilson's choice to advance his career instead of working with his wife was an immoral one--as it does when it signposts the beginning of his transformation by having him perform surgery on one of her patients pro bono--which seems to suggest that if the poor don't have access to top notch medical care, that's the fault of greedy, ambitious doctors, not a state that won't provide them, and the doctors, with an adequate health care system.  That same attitude also extends to both shows' valorization of general practice over specialized surgery--as if cardiothoracic surgery was a big city affectation instead of a life-saving specialty--even though for either character to opt for general practice over surgery (as Wilson's character chose--wrongly, it is implied--not to do when he left his wife, and as Bilson is clearly on track for) would be a tremendous waste of their training and talent, one that might even cost lives.

  • Terra Nova - This is the second Spielberg-produced science fiction series to premiere in 2011, the first being the summer series Falling Skies.  I never wrote anything about Skies while it was airing even though I watched and enjoyed the whole season, because there didn't seem to be much to say--it was a solidly entertaining grade B science fiction series that didn't really reward closer inspection.  I expected Terra Nova to be cut from the same cloth, but I hadn't expected the similarities to be quite so blatant.  Despite very different premises--Skies posits a cataclysmic alien invasion; Terra Nova starts in an ecologically ravaged 2149 and follows its characters back in time as they try to reboot humanity 85 million years in the past--the beats of the two series are quite similar.  Both focus on male protagonist who is determined to do anything to protect his family (Jason O'Mara), and who clashes with his teenage son (Landon Liboiron).  In both, the male lead is both the loyal right hand and the occasional foil of a tough-as-nails leader (Stephen Lang) who harbors some dark secrets and is also the series's best-developed character.  Both feature an older female character, the lead's love interest, who is a kind, nurturing doctor (Shelley Conn) and an action chick (Allison Miller, almost unrecognizable as princess Michelle from Kings and very good as a level-headed young woman with obvious leadership skills) who is positioned as the son's love interest.

    Falling Skies's greatest asset was that its lead was played by Noah Wyle, who imbued his character with a complexity and intelligence that the rest of the show lacked.  Unfortunately for Terra Nova, O'Mara isn't up to Wyle's level, and the script treats him rather poorly--in the first half of the pilot his character, a former cop turned prisoner who stowed away so he could join his emigrating family, is subjected to a lot of unfunny scenes in which he grimaces through agricultural duty even though he'd really rather join the security detail.  These are presumably meant to show that his talents are being wasted, the better for him to show those talents off at an opportune moment, but actually they just make him seem whiny and out of step, since agricultural work is presumably very important in a fledgling colony and there's probably more work to be done than hands to do it.  It's a good thing, then, that Terra Nova's world is so interesting, by which I mean not the mysterious schism between the colonists and a breakaway group who may have been sent from the future to destabilize the last hope of humanity, or the dark hints that Lang's missing, mad son is wandering the jungle in possession of arcane and potentially dangerous knowledge, but the very idea of colonizing our own world, and the way that Terra Nova visualizes it.  The pilot is energetic and does a good job of conveying the strangeness and newness of this ancient Earth, and there are, of course, several exciting scenes involving dinosaurs, which is the sort of thing that might pale in time but for now is a lot of fun.  I'm less enthusiastic, as I said, about the various mysteries teased in the pilot, and even less so about the show's choice to filter its stories through the experiences of a single family and its, frankly not very interesting or well done, squabbles and difficulties, but right now the sense I'm getting from Terra Nova is that it, too, can be solidly entertaining grade B fare, but with dinosaurs.  That would not be a bad thing in my book.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, September 19-23

As well as my own review of Torchwood: Miracle Day, this week sees the publication of Duncan Lawie's review of Dancing With Bears: The Postutopian Adventures of Darger and Surplus by Michael Swanwick.  Duncan's project is to discover whether the novel, in which Swanwick expands on his short stories featuring the titular pair of con-men and rogues, has more to it than the sense of whimsy that characterizes those stories.  On Friday, Karen Burnham looks at two novels, Redwood and Wildfire, a historical fantasy by Andrea Hairston, and Galore, a more mimetic historical novel by Michael Crummey, and notes the similarities in their discussion of women's power in their settings.

The Strange Horizons fund drive is going into its final week still far short of its goal.  If you can, please consider helping the magazine continue to publish stories, poems, articles, columns, and of course reviews. The list of fund drive prizes has also been updates: the new prizes are listed here.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2011 Edition

Well, here we are again.  Summer seems to have flown past and now the fall pilots are upon us, this year in a flood of new shows that nevertheless doesn't seem to have yielded too many winners yet.  Even leaving out the genuine turkeys (Whitney, The Playboy Club, Unforgettable), there aren't yet any shows that I'm genuinely excited by, and only a few whose pilots have left me intrigued.
  • Ringer - Two episodes into this show, you really have to hope that the producers are paying Sarah Michelle Gellar a lot of money, because I doubt that anyone who is continuing to give Ringer a chance is doing so for its merits, which are few.  The only reason to stick with Ringer despite its tepid and often nonsensical writing, thin characters and lackluster dialogue is the faint hope that the show will pull it together and provide Gellar, who since the end of Buffy has been absent not just from TV screens but from most movies except some small, unimpressive indie efforts, with a new and long-lasting vehicle.  Not that Gellar is particularly good in the double role of twins Bridget and Siobhan, a just-dried-up alcoholic former stripper on the run from the mob and a Manhattan socialite who fakes her own death, leaving a gap that her sister eagerly fills.  Admittedly, she has little to work with--not only does the writing do little to distinguish Bridget and Siobhan from one another, relying on the differences in their class and social settings to do the heavy lifting in the pilot and then forgetting that Bridget should have no idea how to be a Lady Who Lunches in the second episode, it also gives them little personality of their own.  Aside from sharing a ruthless streak--Bridget goes from mourning her sister's apparent suicide to stealing her life in a matter of hours, and in the second episode coolly conceals (and briefly considers dismembering) the body of an assassin whom she has killed, while Siobhan is the person who dispatched the assassin, the better to cement the story of her death--there's really nothing notable about either sister, nothing that makes them protagonists whose travails we'd want to follow.

    But Gellar is a problem here too.  She plays both roles with so little energy and personality that it just becomes harder and harder to believe that this is the same woman who embodied a heroine for seven seasons.  It's possible that this is an acting choice, that Gellar is trying to play her characters as deliberately unheroic, just ordinary women who are tired and battered-about by life.  From the evidence of Ringer, however, this stretches her talents too far--instead of emotionally numb, Bridget and Siobhan come off as emotionally limited.  None of this matters to the show, of course.  Ringer makes the classic and increasingly common mistake of assuming that a twisty plot will make up for the dullness of the people it happens to.  And, as has happened so many times before, this choice--which extends not just to Siobhan and Bridget but to the people around them such as Siobhan's stuffy financier husband, her failed novelist lover, and the people from Bridget's past who are pursuing her--scuttles the show, mainly because the plot so far is less twisty than it is full of holes (why, for example, does Siobhan, having already successfully faked her death for Bridget's benefit, need Bridget to assume her identity and be murdered in her place?).  Like, I suspect, a lot of people, I'm going to keep watching Ringer simply because Gellar is in it, but if I were her I'd be hoping for its quick cancellation, because just as she is helping to keep Ringer afloat, it is swiftly burning up my fond memories of her as an actress, and my willingness to follow her to her next project.

  • Revenge - This, on the other hand, is how you make a trashy high-concept soap opera about an imposter moving among rich, heartless, upper-class people.  The plot is lifted right out of The Count of Monte Cristo--years ago, Amanda Clarke's father was framed for treason by his friends; now styling herself Emily Thorne, and with the help of a vast fortune left to her by her father, she rents a house in the Hamptons where that group still congregates every summer, and starts taking her revenge, making her way, one by one, to the chief architect of her father's downfall, the icy queen of the Hamptons set, Victoria Grayson.  Like Ringer, the pilot does little to build any of its characters--the closest to a rounded personality is Victoria, played to chilly perfection by Madeleine Stowe, but she's got a fairly familiar and meaty type to sink her teeth into--the queen bee, outwardly charming and gracious but in reality ruling her social circle with an iron fist.  As Amanda/Emily, Emily VanCamp does a good job of conveying steely determination, and an equal portion of ruthlessness, under a guise of innocence, but her character, who by definition has more complicated motivations and more thorny emotional journey to undergo than Victoria, is still largely opaque.  The pilot makes up for this, though, by being deliciously fun and engaging, following Emily's initial forays into her new environment and her first strike against one of the people responsible for framing her father at the same time that it establishes her background and the large cast of players.  Despite the ponderous voiceovers that bookend the pilot, Revenge doesn't seem to have anything substantial or thought-provoking to say about its title subject, or on the question of whether Emily is being righteous or self-destructive to pursue it, and to be honest that might be all to the good.  This doesn't strike me as a show whose strengths are in the realm of philosophy, and I doubt that it can find something new to say about this old chestnut.  But the pilot does set a high bar for twisty revenge stories, and teases a battle of wits between two equally determined, equally imposing characters each bent on the other's destruction, so if the show can deliver on those two promises it might certainly be worth following nevertheless.

  • Up All Night, New Girl, and 2 Broke Girls - Every year there's a veritable deluge of sitcom pilots, and every year I wonder whether to even bother writing about them, because sitcoms rarely work, or even give a very good sense of how they might work, in their pilot episodes.  I was underwhelmed by the Community pilot two years ago, and that's become one of my all-time favorite shows, and most of the other sitcoms I follow, like How I Met Your Mother and 30 Rock, are shows I picked up when they were already several years into their run.  So writing about these three shows (and not about the other sitcoms I've sampled like Whitney, which was terrible, and Free Agents, which was uninteresting) has less to do with assessing them as shows--I'm not even sure whether I'm going to continue with any of them--than with having found something to comment on in all three of them.

    Of the three, Up All Night is the one I'm least interested in, though not for any flaws in the show itself, in which high-flying, hard-partying hipster couple Chris and Reagan (Will Arnett and Christina Applegate) decide to keep an unplanned pregnancy and have to adjust to life with a baby, and to the notion of themselves as adults who are responsible for another, entirely helpless, human being.  The show is funny and well done, but the only thing about the pilot that grabbed me was its depiction of Chris and Reagan's relationship.  We all know how a premise like this is supposed to play out, the kind of reductive stereotypes--the childish husband who won't grow up, the shrewish wife who now has two children to whip into shape--they often trade in, and Up All Night is refreshingly devoid of these beats.  Even more importantly, it convincingly argues that Chris and Reagan are not just a successful couple but uniquely suited to each other's quirks, which they lovingly indulge.  In a scene in the pilot, Reagan comes home after a tiring first day back at work to find Chris playing video games on the couch and eager to tell her about his new friend, a fellow stay-at-home dad who is also a surfer.  In a standard sitcom, this would be Reagan's cue to berate Chris for his childish interests, but instead she shares them.  "You've always wanted a surfer friend!"  She enthuses.  It's nice to watch a sitcom about a married couple who love each other because, not in spite of, their foibles and weird traits, and even nicer that neither Chris nor Reagan are "the normal one," but rather that they help each other cope with the world by either validating the other's weirdness or talking them down from it when they it goes too far.  I'm less interested, however, in the new baby premise and the stories that emerge from it, and rather dubious about the character of Ava (Maya Rudolph), Reagan's self-absorbed diva of a boss who is rather heavily featured in the pilot, which is why I still doubt that I will be following this show, but Chris and Reagan's relationship may yet bring me back.

    New Girl is the funniest sitcom pilot I've seen this fall, but also the one that made me feel most uncomfortable about laughing along.  The title character is Jess (Zooey Deschanel), a cute but very odd young woman with habits like showering in a bathing suit or singing out loud about whatever's happening to her at any given moment, who after a hard breakup rents an apartment with three men, hard-nosed Coach (Damon Wayans Jr., who is apparently leaving the show after a few episodes, which is a shame as he's quite good in the pilot), brash womanizer Schmidt (Max Greenfield), and Nick (Jake M. Johnson) who is still smarting from his own recent breakup.  In his review of the New Girl pilot at the AV Club, Erik Adams praises the show for turning the Manic Pixie Dream Girl concept on its head--Jess is a quirky person whose weird habits and offbeat outlook on life, instead of being winning and charming, are off-putting to the men around her.  While this is true, and while the show is to be praised for taking that approach, and particularly for doing so with the current reigning queen of Manic Pixie Dream Girl-ishness, I'm not sure that by doing so New Girl has managed to crack this pernicious character type so much as it has found a new, and even more aggravating, way of perpetuating it.  The pilot revolves around the three men trying to help Jess get past her post-breakup funk by finding a rebound guy, to which end they have to teach her to sham normality long enough to score a date.  The question that's left largely unanswered, though, is why they're going to so much trouble to help someone whom they all seem to find so completely offputting, and the uncomfortable answer that the pilot finally seems to give us is that Jess's weirdness makes her so pathetic and so incapable of functioning in the world (despite the fact that she functioned just fine before moving in with the other characters) that the only decent thing the male characters can do is steer her along and look after her.  By the end of the pilot, which sees Coach, Schmidt, and Nick horribly mangling "Time of My Life" in a crowded restaurant to cheer Jess up after being stood up, the show seems as if it ought to be titled Three Men and a Special Needs Adult.  What's missing is any sense of what Jess thinks about all this, how she feels about being weird and out of sync with the rest of the world.  Presumably this is something she's been dealing with her whole life, and yet the pilot portrays her as entirely oblivious to her effect on others.  It spends a lot of time detailing the reactions of the male characters to Jess's weirdness, but never bothers to check how Jess feels about being weird.  In the end, New Girl circles right back around to the core problem of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl type--the fact that a female character is defined by the effect that her weird personality has on men.

    2 Broke Girls is a more traditional kind of sitcom--multi-camera and with a laugh-track--and the pilot suffers from a lot of the flaws that afflict this format, most notably the fact that the secondary characters are broadly drawn types who only seem to have one joke in them.  But the core of the show is intriguing.  It concentrates on the meeting between Max (Kat Dennings), a working class girl who waitresses at a Brooklyn diner, and Caroline (Beth Behrs), a former heiress, now penniless and friendless after her father's arrest for fraud, who gets a job at the same diner.  Max is the rather familiar type of a tough girl who is secretly vulnerable, and for a while it seems that 2 Broke Girls is aiming for the well-worn trope of the meeting between street-smarts and book-smarts, crudeness and sophistication, experience and naivety.  Then the pilot turns the tables by revealing that, in her own way, Caroline is just as mercenary and ruthless as Max, and by having them form not just a friendship but a financial partnership, merging Caroline's head for money with Max's baking skills with the goal of opening a business.  It's nice to see a show whose central relationship is a friendship between women, especially one whose foundation goes beyond the dubious sitcom standard of opposites attracting--Max and Caroline have things in common and seem to genuinely appreciate one another and benefit from each other's company, and the two actresses have a winning rapport.  The introduction of a financial goal helps to ground the show and to give it a sense of direction--the pilot ends with a slide showing the total amount of money the girls have saved up towards their goal of $250,000--and that along with the strength of the core relationship could help to propel 2 Broke Girls to great things, so long as the wrinkles of the pilot--and most especially its reliance on ethnic stereotypes in the case of several of the secondary characters--are ironed out.

  • Person of Interest - Of all the new shows this fall, Person of Interest has the most big names attached.  Jonathan Nolan, of "Christopher Nolan's brother and frequent collaborator" fame, is credited as the show's creator and also wrote the pilot.  J.J. Abrams is a producer, and the show represents his reunion with Michael Emerson, who for a lot of people was the main reason to keep going with Lost in its later seasons.  Emerson plays Finch, a millionaire who recruits Reese (Jim Caviezel), a former government agent, to help the helpless.  There's some guff about how Finch finds these souls in need of saving, which involves a supercomputer that spits out names of people who are going to be at the center of a crime, either as victims or perpetrators, but the pilot does little with this and doesn't indicate that the series will be particularly interested in investigating its premise as anything more than a McGuffin that points Finch and Reese towards their next case.  Of course, that's just my guess, and one that's a little hard to back up given that the pilot does little with most of its elements--setting, premise, characters--and is in fact one of the most dreary, uninvolving hours of television it has ever been my misfortune to sit through.  The dialogue is wooden, and usually delivered in mournful pronouncements by actors who seem to have been instructed never to look each other in the eye or move their facial muscles and whose characters are never developed beyond their rather hoary types, and the plot is too-familiar and not very engaging.  The whole thing makes one sentimental for Human Target, which was by no means a great show (and which like Person of Interest had trouble depicting women as anything but objects to be rescued or, when their rescue fails, mourned) but which took a similar "repentant killer swoops into people's lives and saves them from harm" premise and did something witty and fun with it, delivering sharply constructed, clever stories where Person of Interest simply sleepwalks through its premise.  You have to wonder whether any of the big names involved in the show realized what a dud they were creating, and whether they were so secure in the power of their big names that they sent it out in the world nonetheless.  Hopefully they're in for a rude awakening.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Review: Torchwood: Miracle Day

My review of Torchwood: Miracle Day appears today at Strange Horizons.  Spoiler: I did not like it, but even worse than that, I found it boring.  In my review I try to touch not just on why Miracle Day didn't work, but why Torchwood failed to hold on to the huge leap forward it made with Children of Earth.

And a reminder that the Strange Horizons fund drive is still going, and that prizes are going to be raffled off among contributors.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, September 12-16

Hannah Strom-Martin reviews Welcome to Bordertown: New Stories and Poems of the Borderlands, the latest installment in the shared-world anthology series, this time edited by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner.  She's pleased by what she finds, but wonders if the anthology's tone is less edgy and confrontational than the Bordertown setting pretends to be.  Michael Levy is impressed with Lavie Tidhar's Osama, an alternate history in which the title character is the hero of pulp novels in which he carries out exciting terrorist attacks, arguing that the real Osama's death will not dull the novel's relevance or sting.  T.S. Miller is equally impressed by Peter S. Beagle's latest collection of stories, Sleight of Hand.

And a reminder that the Strange Horizons fund drive is still ongoing.  There are also new prizes that will be raffled off among contributors.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

On the Fringe

I've been trying to figure out how to sum up my reaction to Fringe, and after giving the matter some thought what I've concluded is that Fringe is a good show that is also incredibly badly written.  The second part should need little explanation.  "From the writers of the Transformers films and Star Trek, with guest appearances by the writer of Batman Forever, Batman and Robin, and Lost in Space" is hardly a guarantor of quality.  But what I find interesting about Fringe is how very closely its flaws concentrate around the meat and potatoes of writing--on plot, character, and dialogue--and how that concentration leaves space around the edges for a surprising complexity that will almost certainly curdle into nothingness by the time the show ends, but which for the time being makes the show almost worth a look.

Fringe kicks off with FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) being recruited to the titular division, which investigates crimes whose method or circumstances are strange and unexplained, after her partner and lover becomes the victim of one of these crimes, and in turn recruiting former mad scientist and current mental patient Walter Bishop (John Noble), who insists that the laws of nature are nothing of the sort, and his reluctant son and guardian Peter (Joshua Jackson), who is skeptical of these claims, to help her figure out what's causing this sudden outbreak of seemingly impossible phenomena.  The premise is rather obviously borrowed from The X-Files, but the interpersonal relationships and character arcs seem to have been lifted from Alias.  Like Sydney Bristow, Olivia is a damaged but supremely capable super-agent who is launched into a new world, whose existence she had never suspected, by the death of her lover, but who quickly discovers that she has been intimately linked to that world since childhood.  And like Sydney's relationship with her father Jack, Peter and Walter start the series at odds, with Peter resenting Walter's alternately chaotic and absentee parenting and Walter struggling with the many dark secrets he's kept from Peter, but slowly grows--with some notable setbacks when those dark secrets start coming to light--into a deep and loving bond.

To hold Fringe up against either one of these shows is to get a good sense of where its writing fails.  Nowadays, the conversation about The X-Files tends to revolve around the disintegration of its conspiracy story arc, or the awesomeness of Mulder and Scully, but when the show was just starting out one of its greatest strengths was that it took a simple premise--the rational investigation of irrational events--and spun so many different stories, in so many different settings and emotional registers, out of it, with results that were almost always worth watching and sometimes sublime.  Fringe's standalone stories, in contrast, are thin and predictable.  They all seem to take place in the same narrow swath of nondescript East Coast cities and their suburbs (on the rare occasions that the show ventures out into the country, it quickly devolves into a stream of embarrassing rural stereotypes), do little to develop those settings or the week's guest characters, resolve in the same manner--the weird phenomenon of the week turns out to be related to an old experiment of Walter's, which allows him to save the day with technobabble--and do all this through dialogue so canned that I often found myself predicting the characters' lines before they had spoken them.  Most Fringe episodes seem to rely for their effect on images of gore and horror, which occur several times in each story as the weird science of the week claims its victims.  These scenes are always impeccably constructed and effectively horrifying--if nothing else, one can't help but respect Fringe for kicking off its run with a shot of a man whose jaw is melting off his face as he screams in horror and then going deeper into that well--but they seem to represent the other departments of the show's production--directing, music, makeup, and special effects--compensating for the writers' ineptness.

Makeup and special effects will only take you so far, however, and when it comes to creating characters Fringe's writers have little but their talents to fall back on.  The results are not pretty.  Especially if you stand it alongside Alias--by no means a standard-bearer for complex, subtle character work but certainly a series that managed to engage its audience with character arcs and relationships very similar to Fringe's--it's impossible not to notice how underwritten Fringe's characters are.  The writers' approach seems to be that if they pile more and more incredible and unusual circumstances and background details on their characters, eventually, and as if by magic, an interesting personality will be formed.  So Peter isn't just the abandoned son of a mad scientist, but a genius con man with a shady past who has bounced from one job to another (sometimes forging his credentials) for ten years.  And Olivia isn't just a badass FBI agent and former Marine who loses her lover under tragic circumstances, but a survivor of child abuse (who is still being stalked by her abusive stepfather, whom she shot when she was 9 years old), of the early deaths of both her parents, and of illegal experiments conducted on her as a child by Walter meant to unleash her latent psychic potential, of which she is the most successful (and most functional) former subject.

You can guess how well this works, especially as the show takes a tell, don't show approach to many of these attributes--at several points during the first season, for example, I found myself suddenly taken aback by the realization that Peter is supposed to be a dangerous rogue, which I had forgotten in the face of how milquetoast the actual character is.  Olivia, meanwhile, has a justification for her blandness--Walter's experiments have damaged her psychologically and left her with the subconscious desire to blend in and not call attention to herself.  This, however, is an explanation, not an excuse.  A character can be reserved and emotionless and nevertheless draw the viewers' attention to themselves, conveying the turmoil beneath their calm facade (perhaps the best example, especially in Fringe's neighborhood, is Dana Scully), but this takes strong writing and a capable actor.  I think the show has the latter in Torv, who does fine work when called upon to play a more demonstrative version of Olivia, or mimic the mannerisms and speech patterns of Leonard Nimoy (an actor who knows a thing or two about playing an emotionless character who is nevertheless charismatic, and who on Fringe plays Walter's former lab partner William Bell), but the writing just isn't there, and Olivia just isn't very interesting.

The one character on the show who couldn't possibly be called underwritten is Walter, who positively bursts with personality and a host of quirky and seemingly contradictory traits.  In any given scene, Walter might switch on a dime between childlike glee at the rediscovery of a favorite food forbidden to him during his stay in the mental hospital, prurient reminiscences of his drug-addled escapades in the 60s and 70s, excited fascination at the prospect of a new case, especially if it involves gruesomely mutilated bodies, frustration at having his pie-in-the-sky scientific theories questioned by narrow-minded fools, a greedy and heedless hunger to be the first to cross some previous unsuspected frontier of human knowledge, and deep sorrow at the consequences of having indulged that hunger in the past.  Noble, who is the show's greatest asset, manages to tie all these conflicting emotions into a person who is simultaneously daffy and sinister.  Without Walter, and Noble, Fringe simply could not work--he embodies, and gives life to, the conflict at its core between rationalism and fantasy, and between the desire to cross boundaries and fear of what that crossing might entail and cost.

The problem is that Fringe's writers are too aware of this, and use Walter as a crutch.  If an episode is dull, or if the "science" at its core strains credulity even more than usual, Walter can provide a distraction and liven things up by making an inappropriate reference to his sexual history, or getting high on some home-brewed intoxicant.  Which, to be fair, is always funny, but the more we learn about Walter, the less suitable that humorous tone, and the show's fond, bemused take on him, come to seem.  As well as the experiments that scarred Olivia and permanently damaged many other children--experiments conducted without their parents' knowledge or consent--the Fringe team encounters several other survivors of Walter's experiments, many of whom have also suffered serious adverse effects.  And these are not even his worst crimes.  Near the end of the first season we discover that Walter has proven the existence of an alternate universe, and even seen into it, and in the second season it's revealed that twenty five years ago he opened a portal to that universe, and crossed through it to kidnap Peter, the alternate of Walter's own son who had died.  This breach caused--as Walter knew perfectly well that it would--catastrophic damage to the alternate Earth, which in the decades since Peter's kidnapping has experienced localized breakdowns of the laws of physics, the spontaneous formation of black holes, mass die-offs of plant and animal species, and outbreaks of lethal mutated strains of diseases like smallpox and bird flu.  In other words, Walter is responsible for destruction and suffering on an unimaginable scale, and the deaths of probably millions of people--and that's before you even get to the revelation that unless a solution is found, the inevitable result of his meddling will be the destruction of both universes.

By any reasonable standard, Walter should be, at the very least, an unsympathetic character, and on a stronger, better-written show a lot of mileage could have been wrung out of the tension between the audience's horror at Walter's actions and his contrition and determination to make amends.  But Fringe needs Walter, and Noble, too badly to ever let him spend too long in the villain's corner, so every time it reveals another facet of his crimes, it tries to downplay them with a host of unworthy and manipulative techniques that include Noble's dependably winning hangdog expression and puppy dog eyes, having one of other castmembers comfort Walter for feeling so bad about his past misdeeds (mostly this is the criminally underused Jasika Nicole as the equally criminally underused Astrid Farnsworth, an FBI agent for whom the Bureau can find no better employment than to act as Walter's lab assistant and gopher, but sometimes the rest of the cast take turns--when Olivia is furious at Walter for experimenting on her, Peter comforts him; later, when Peter disappears after learning that Walter kidnapped him, Olivia is the one who offers Walter solace), and, most shamefully, using Walter's disabilities--he is either mentally ill, brain damaged, or both--and the infirmities of his age to elicit pity and imply that he's just a harmless old man who has suffered enough.

To the show's credit, in the third season Walter learns to consider the consequences of his actions, and accepts that he can't continue to protect Peter at the expense of others, but this not only leaves the question of his past crimes unaddressed, but seems to imply that the only thing wrong with Walter was a tendency to leap before he looked.  Personally, I think someone who can brutalize small children in the name of science has a bit more wrong with them than that, but Fringe seems eager to evade that point.  Instead of admitting that a person can be lovable and horrible at the same time, Fringe constantly tries to use the former aspect of Walter to short-circuit the latter, which ultimately damages the character.  There's a limit to how many times the show can reveal yet another awful thing that Walter has done, only to immediately stress how sorry he is and look, the old man is getting high and telling stories about the time he woke up in bed with Yoko Ono, before Walter, for all of Noble's best efforts, starts to seem less like a person and more like an engine cranking out wacky scientific theories, fart jokes, and sad expressions on demand.  (Interestingly, Walter's counterpart, whom our heroes call Walternate, does not suffer from this problem.  Fringe is willing--eager, even--for us to see Walternate, who as his world's US Secretary of Defense is convinced that the two worlds are at war and has dispatched operatives to our world who have killed countless innocents, as at best a conflicted villain, though it also acknowledges that he has suffered terribly at Walter's hands.  Absent the constant, and increasingly desperate, editorializing that accompanies Walter and tries to argue that he's a good guy at heart, Walternate is free to become a more human, more believable character--someone whom the audience can dislike while still acknowledging that they have legitimate points on their side.)

So far I've written a lot of about the ways in which Fringe is badly written--so much that my conclusion that it is nevertheless a good show might seem almost untenable.  So what is it that works in Fringe despite its flaws?  The simplest--but not, I suspect, the most accurate--answer would be the transformation of the show's storytelling in its third season, in which the battle for survival between the two universes, which has been building in the show's background for two seasons, boils over and becomes the show's main focus.  The season begins with Olivia's double (dubbed, naturally enough, Fauxlivia) taking her place in our universe while Olivia is brainwashed into thinking that she is her alternate, and continues to switch between the two universes even after the two Olivias return to their homes.  As the effects of Walter's incursion begin to be felt in our world, both universes' Fringe teams discover a God machine with the power to destroy one universe or the other, and the race is on to see who can get theirs working first.

Fringe's third season is the first one that I genuinely enjoyed watching, but as fun and exciting as it was--and as relieved as I was at the show finally moving away from its limp standalone stories to tell this more continuous one--I'm not sure it represents a meaningful and lasting improvement in the show's writing.  Fringe in its third season puts me very strongly in mind of Heroes in its first--that same sense of plot developments being flung at the audience at breakneck speed to distract from their flaws, of quantity making up for the absence of quality.  There's a lot more plot in the third season, and, with two universes, nearly twice as many characters to keep track of.  This does a lot to distract from the show's weaknesses--the contrast between the main cast and their alternates in the other universe, for instance, not only gives the actors a chance to strut their stuff but crystallizes our sense of the original characters, and helps to counteract their flatness--but it doesn't eliminate them.  The whole season is flimsy, ready to fall apart at the lightest touch--there's really no convincing reason for either of the Olivias to switch places with each other, for example--and given the example of Heroes, and the silliness of the plot tokens currently on the board (which include a race of humans who lived on Earth millions of years ago, but who may actually have been our heroes, who traveled in time to the distant past) it seems all too likely that the plotty fun of the third season will give way to complete nonsense sooner rather than later.  (Also, if I were in any way invested in Olivia as a character, I'd probably be a lot less enamored of the third season, in which she goes from the heroine foretold in prophecy to the person whose destiny it is to enable Peter's foretold-in-prophecy heroism, and in which her alternate spends an episode pregnant and strapped to a table.)

What does work in the third season, however, is how it constructs the alternate universe, the obvious care and thought that have been put into creating a world that is like ours but different--slightly more technologically advanced, but wracked by hardships that have affected everything from culture to technology to social policy.  People in the alternate US go out for tea because coffee is prohibitively scarce, pause somberly to reflect on the twentieth anniversary of the opening of a wormhole in the East River that threatened to tear New York City apart, protest the use of amber, a quickly solidifying gas, to encase "soft spots" where wormholes might form because such quarantines sometimes trap fleeing pedestrians in a sort of living death, and always check the oxygen content of the air before stepping outside.  It's an endlessly fascinating portrait--all the more so for the way the characters take it in stride, having lived within this hellish situation their whole lives--and I found myself wishing for more glimpses of it, for a whole alternate Fringe set in this universe.

The alternate universe also helps to emphasize one of Fringe's prevailing themes, and arguably its strongest attribute--as strange as it may sound, Fringe may be one of the most intriguing and thought-provoking treatments of 9/11 and its aftermath on American television.  The 9/11 attacks are referenced explicitly several times in the series--to signify that Olivia has crossed over to the alternate universe at the end of the first season, the camera pulls away from her and reveals that she is standing in one of the Twin Towers (in that universe, the terrorists attacked the White House instead); when Peter's consciousness is brought to the future in the third season finale, he finds himself at Ground Zero, gazing at the new World Trade Center and a plaque commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the attacks; Fringe division itself is originally introduced as falling under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security--but they are also recalled more subtly, through the alienation and fear the characters experience upon discovering that the world is not what they thought it was, and so much scarier than they expected.  In an early first season episode, Olivia and her friend and fellow agent Charlie Francis (Kirk Acevedo) discuss their sense that they are helpless to protect people against the new threats they've been confronted with--a conversation that wouldn't seem out of place between any pair of FBI agents following 9/11.  But in this case the threats being discussed are fringe events.  These are often staged to recall terrorist attacks--public murders of victims of opportunity seemingly aimed more at horrifying their survivors--and frequently referred to as such by the characters.

Fringe throws a serious spanner in the works when it reveals that the alternate universe--where many of the fringe events that our heroes have been trying to fight and protect people from originate--has a genuine grievance against ours, and that the damage their operatives have caused pales beside the damage we've inflicted on them.  It must be said that Fringe is making things easy on itself.  The alternate universe device means that the show never asks either its audience or characters to identify with the Other or see past their differences, because these hardly exist--for all the differences between the two universes (or at least the North American settings we've seen in both of them) they have essentially the same culture, language, and racial makeup--and the parallel with real world situations is severely undercut by the damage to the alternate universe having been caused by the actions of a single grief-stricken man, not decades of foreign policy backed by, and reinforcing, cultural attitudes.  At the root of Fringe's 9/11 analogue are not colonialism or imperialism--arguably the building blocks of Western society and thus rather hard to dismantle--but a single mistake.  Nevertheless, I'm struggling to think of another US TV series that has allowed itself to say as baldly what Fringe has been saying for three seasons--that 9/11 did not come out of nowhere, that it has root causes that often lead back to the West, and that we may not be the good guys in this story.  Especially when compared to other, clomping attempts to address the West's culpability in the War on Terror in science fiction (in particular Battlestar Galactica's hysterical "the heroes are the terrorists!!!1!1!" approach), the low-key, matter of fact way in which Fringe delivers this message--as if it were plainly obvious and now we just have to face up to it and figure out what comes next--comes as both a surprise and a relief.

Between this message--and the intriguing way in which it is delivered--and the fascinating worldbuilding of the alternate universe, there's enough in Fringe to keep me watching for now, even though I suspect the whole thing will end in tears and disappointment.  I'd be remiss, however, to close this essay without mentioning another, far less congenial, of the show's themes.  Fringe is determinedly, almost scarily anti-science.  There has not been a single positive portrayal of a scientist or scientific research on the show--all are depicted as sinister, deranged, unethical, and more interested in acquiring knowledge than in morality.  Research, and especially experimentation on human test subjects, is never rational, methodical, or rule-bound, and the possibility that science might be a force for good--that it can cure diseases, advance technology, help to improve standards of living--is rarely given any credence.  (There is one exception--a second season episode in which a doctor who has developed a treatment for sleep disorders is genuinely trying to help his patients, has been following strict scientific and ethical procedures, and in general seems like a decent, well-adjusted guy.  It naturally transpires that his own treatment has split him into two Jekyll-and-Hyde-like entities, the latter of which has been abusing the treatment for its own pleasure and killing the patients who have received it.)  It's a stance that sits well with the show's roots in the Gothic tradition (in the pilot, Peter compares Walter to Dr. Frankenstein) and with its oft-repeated moral that there are some boundaries that should never be crossed, some areas of knowledge that man was not meant to venture into.  But it rather puts one off to come to a science fiction series in 2011 and find such a regressive, conservative point of view.  Of all its many flaws, if there's one that has the potential to put me off Fringe for good, it is this conviction that science is evil.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, September 5-9

Niall Harrison and Nic Clarke kick off this week's reviews with two views on the recently-concluded first season of Game of Thrones, Niall from the perspective of someone who hasn't read the books, and Nic as a fan of the series.  Both end up with a mixture of praise and reservations.  This is followed by two reviewer debuts: Nandini Ramachandran looks at M.D. Lachlan's Fenrir, the sequel to Wolfsangel, concluding that it is perhaps too similar to its prequel for comfort, and also wondering about the depiction of Vikings and the Norse myths in popular culture.  Molly Tanzer, meanwhile, is disgusted, but in a good way, by Nick Mamatas's Sensation, a horror novel in which giant, super-intelligent spiders inhabit human bodies, but the true horror is to be found elsewhere.

Also, a reminder that the Strange Horizons fund drive is still going.  This week there are some new prizes to be raffled off among contributors.  Please consider donating or publicizing the fund drive.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, August 29-September 2

This week, Strange Horizons reprints Pat Cadigan's 1991 story "Home by the Sea," with an introduction by Tricia Sullivan and a retrospective article on Cadigan by Tanya Brown.  The reviews department joins in the fun with two pieces: a review of Cadigan's 2000 novel Dervish is Digital, by Nader Elhefnawy, and an essay about several of Cadigan's short stories from the 80s by Matt Cheney.  Kicking off September's reviews, meanwhile, is Sarah Monette with a review of the essay collection Teaching Science Fiction, edited by Andy Sawyer and Peter Wright, which Sarah finds interesting but hobbled by a failure to define what science fiction is.

September is also the Strange Horizons fund drive month.  The main fund drive page is here, and a list of prizes to be raffled off to donors is here (and updated throughout the month).  If you're able to, please consider donating, and helping to keep Strange Horizons--and its reviews department--going strong.