Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2012 Edition, Part 1

Well, here we are again, in fall pilot season.  As has become traditional, we have a drizzle of new shows this week, followed by a deluge next week, so for now I'm fresh and energized enough to write quite a bit about each new show.  By next week, I suspect, I'll be a little more punchy.
  • The Mob Doctor - I try not to be one of those people who assume that cable television is inherently superior to network television, and who say, of every failed network show, that it would have been so much better on HBO.  This is not only because there's plenty of excellent network TV out there, but because cable TV has its own set of tropes and core assumptions that I would hate to see television become consumed by, such a tendency to treat sexual violence and female nudity as hallmarks of artistic maturity, and a preference for borderline- or outright-psychopathic male leads that relegates female character almost exclusively to the contingent roles of love interest and caretaker.  It's not a coincidence, I think, that if you're looking for smart, well-made series about professional women that treat the challenges of living feminism with respect and due consideration, you're better off going to the networks, for shows like The Good Wife and Parks and Recreation, than cable,.  So I try not to assume that the networks are incapable of creating quality TV, but The Mob Doctor, a show with a great premise and a dispiriting execution, makes me break my own rule, because almost everything that's wrong with the show boils down the typical network approach of filing off anything that might be off-putting, challenging, or complex about the show or its characters in an effort to make them universally appealing.  The main character, Grace Devlin (Jordana Spiro, rather bland) is an up-and-coming surgical resident at a Chicago hospital who is also in hock to the mob and working off her debt by treating injured enforcers on the side.  There's about a million interesting directions you could take this premise: the conflict between Grace's oath to help those who are injured and her awareness that the people she's helping are hurting others; the class issues that crop up when Grace, who comes from a working class neighborhood where the mob is a not entirely negative fact of life, brushes against her more privileged colleagues and their black and white morality; the financial difficulties of a working class girl making her way through such a demanding and time-intensive medical specialty and the temptation of alleviating these through extra-legal activities; most of all, the seductiveness of having an important role to play in the lives of powerful, charmingly dangerous men, especially when contrasted with a professional sphere in which Grace is one of the lowliest, least valued components.

    The problem with all of these potential avenues of story is that they all require Grace to be at least compromised, if not complicit, in her double life, and, not to indulge in the kind of reductive comparisons that I just got done decrying, network TV is rarely willing for its heroes to be anything but squeaky clean.  So while there are hints in the pilot that the show does realize the precariousness of Grace's position--a former mob boss with whom she has a close relationship warns her that the pursuit of power over life and death as a surgeon isn't a long way from the pursuit of that power as a mobster; a colleague whom Grace had dragged into a dispute with a superior unknowingly parrots the neighborhood mentality that nobody likes a rat--for the most part the dilemmas it places before Grace are clear-cut and unambiguous.  The superior whom Grace crosses overrides her post-surgery instructions and causes a child's death--for which he seems entirely unrepentant.  She convinces her boyfriend to falsify medical records for a teenage patient because if it becomes known that the girl is pregnant she'll lose her scholarship even though the pregnancy was terminated (apparently there's no such thing as doctor-patient confidentiality in this show's universe; also, the show is careful to stress that the pregnancy is ectopic and thus non-viable, so as not to scandalize anyone in the audience with the thought of a 14-year-old having an abortion).  Even the reason that Grace is in debt to the mob is a saintly one--she took over her brother's gambling debt--and the pilot's central story, in which Grace is required to kill an informant who ends up on her operating table, is both broad and resolved with little originality.  Worst of all, Grace herself never feels like a character who is a product of either of her worlds.  She's blithely superior to both hospital politics and the effect they might have on her career, and to the role that the mob played in her childhood and still plays in her family's life (even though, as we learn at the end of the pilot, the reason Grace is friendly with the ex mob boss is that he killed her drunken, abusive father--and will presumably turn out to be her real father).  She seems crafted, right down to her unrealistically attractive, impeccably coiffed, carefully neutral good looks, to be a plucky everywoman whose flaws are the telegenic "cares too much" and "is too passionate about doing the right thing," rather than the flawed product of her environment that the show's story would seem to demand.  Which is a great shame, because as I was saying recently there's a shortage of shows about women struggling with the allure of violence and power, and The Mob Doctor's premise lends itself perfectly to the exploration of that kind of character--and might have done so, had it aired on a more adventurous channel.

  • Revolution - It's hard to know how to judge the pilot episode of Eric Kripke (Supernatural) and J.J. Abrams's new high concept, post-collapse Hunger Games knockoff.  On the one hand, there is the plain fact that this is simply not a very good hour of television.  Especially when you consider that it features gunfights, swordfights, daring escapes, a lot of archery, and the rollback of all modern technology due to the sudden cessation of electricity, the pilot for Revolution is notable for featuring not a single tense or unexpected moment.  It proceeds from beginning to end as if determined, at every turn, to make the most obvious and familiar choices, whether in its story or its worldbuilding.  So we have an idyllic, post-industrial farming community that has sprung up in the ruins of suburbia (unsurprisingly, the pilot completely ignores the troubling undertones of class anxiety and isolationist fantasy that underpin such stories, despite which the heroine's village is set up in what was once a gated community, all the speaking villagers are white, and the attack that disturbs their idyll is led by a black man), militias and feral gangs roaming the landscape, an evil paramilitary commander who has set himself up as the local warlord, and secrets kept by the heroine's father, who is killed in order to kickstart the story and set her on her quest--in this case, to find her uncle, who is also being pursued by the evil warlord, and rescue her kidnapped brother.  Oh, and despite living in a post-technological world, all the characters have access to modern personal grooming products and ample designer clothing, with the tragic exception of the heroine's inability to find a shirt that covers her entire midriff.

    On the other hand, as that description no doubt makes clear, Revolution's pilot has a lot of furniture to move into place, so a failure to distinguish itself or its characters, while by no means promising, isn't necessarily a sign that the show is irredeemable.  For all that its ideas of a post-technological world are unoriginal (compare this show to Dark Angel, a by no means excellent series whose premise was admittedly less restrictive, but which nevertheless managed to create a world robbed of much of its technology that had changed in more ways than simply regressing to a cod Wild West) you could still tell a fun, rollicking story in this world.  Similarly, the blandness of our heroine, Charlie (Tracy Spiridakos, sadly no Jennifer Lawrence), is something that the should could build on, even if right now she's the least interesting character in a mostly uninteresting cast (the sole exception, Charlie's stepmother who insists on joining the quest despite Charlie's resentment of her and shows more common sense and ingenuity than any other characters, seems, at least according to IMDb and the promotional photos I've seen, due to be sidelined, alas).  Though the Hunger Games parallels turn out to be only skin deep--Charlie hunts with a bow and arrow and is motivated by the need to protect her younger sibling, but she is a much less tough person than Katniss, and the pilot frequently comments on her sweetness and need to believe that despite the tough times she lives in, people are still good at heart--the show has a YA sensibility baked deep into its core, right down to a handsome love interest with whom Charlie sparks but with whom she can never be because he--gasp!--works for the evil warlord.  This could mean good things, since the quality that unites most of the YA-derived shows on TV right now--shows like The Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars--is a commitment to a nonstop rollercoaster of plot that only gets zanier and more fun as the episodes pile up.  Or, it could simply be a cynical attempt to cash in on YA's popularity without any intention of replicating the breakneck plotting of these shows.  Right now, Revolution has a good chance of becoming an over-earnest, unoriginal snoozefest with no interesting characters or plot points, and a somewhat less good chance of becoming a fun extension of YA's takeover of popular culture.  I'm not very hopeful, but I'm willing to give the show a few more episodes to shake itself out.

  • The Bletchley Circle - Not a series but a British miniseries, whose crackerjack premise is sadly not as well-realized as it might have been.  Set in 1952, the story follows four women who met as codebreakers in Bletchley Park during WWII, and now come together to solve a series of murders of young women.  There's potential here to explore the frustrations of women for whom the war was an opportunity to stretch their abilities and intellect, and who now find themselves without that outlet and desperate to feel useful again (something that lead Anna Maxwell Martin explored already last year in the miniseries adaptation of Sarah Waters's Night Watch), but a lot of it is squandered in too-obvious cliches.  So the women are a collection of types--the level-headed, determined lead, the beautiful, naive savant, the good-time girl, the spinster--and their relationships with men are equally by the numbers--Martin's husband wants to be supportive but can't quite grasp that she wants more from life than to be a housewife, while another husband is disrespectful and abusive.  There are some moments of genuine insight--most powerfully, a scene in which one of the group asks how men can kill women in such a casual, possessive manner, and the four women silently watch men come and go in a railway station, wordlessly realizing the existence of rape culture--and hints of greater complexity beneath the surface, such as Martin's reaction to her husband's claim that he had enough excitement in his life during the war, her silence making it clear that unlike him, she craves excitement.  But for the most part The Bletchley Circle proceeds very much like every other mystery of this type, its sole distinguishing feature being that because of its period setting, the heroines can basically invent the entire science of criminology from the ground up in a few afternoons.  This is impressive as a story about women exercising their intellect, but less so as a mystery, since as genre-savvy viewers we already know all the tricks that the characters invent, like the fact that the perfection of the first kill indicates an earlier, "trial" victim.  The series might have worked if it were a stronger, more original mystery, or if its exploration of stifled female intelligence in the 1950s were less by the numbers, but compounding the two unoriginal executions results in a worthy but unexciting story.

11 comments:

Bryan M. White said...

Almost point for point exactly what I thought about that Revolution show. I was especially discouraged by the lack of interesting characters, or at least even extraordinary actors that could bring mediocre characters to life. They all seemed cliched or boring or both. Heck, they even had the fat-beared-guy-who-used-to-work-for-Google-and-has-a-ridiculously-oversized-napsack. I feel like we've seen this guy dozens of times before in these post-apocalyptic stories, but I couldn't say exactly where.

Foxessa said...

Pilots are often not good. It takes a while.

For instance if I'd relied on the pilot for Scandal to judge the show, it was too frenetic and too much congratulation US (meaning the Olivia Pope's crew, not Our / My Nation) = White Hats, Good Guys, Gladiators in Suits, Knights, etc.

This stuff tones down and the show gets fascinating, fascinating due to the people we are looking at, and the curiosity as to how the seasonal arc resolves. Also, if you are an African American woman, Scandal speaks to you on whole other levels too -- in good ways.

Like Revenge, Scandal's characters all have superpowers, but not supernatural powers -- just mighty skills and capacity for reading others. As well as being gorgeous and possessing the perfect wardrobes and housing.

What's kind of cute about both these shows is the locations are as much 'characters' as the characters. Revenge is a kind of gothic -- the mansions -- you come in and can't leave. In Scandal, it's the White House ....

Along with The Good Wife, I'm really looking forward to the new seasons of these -- and White Collar.

Very slick, very stylish. And all of these shows depend on the speaking of the actors, in prolonged, perhaps too long even, paragraphs. (Not White Collar -- that depends more on the rapid fire of ye screwball comedy of the past -- which they include at least one entirely authentic screwball episode per season. But White Collar does feature a fairy tale NYC, in terms of the location.)

And Treme -- but that's a whole other thang.

I'm really tired of supernatural and superpowers -- which, I think, is showing! :) So I'm particularly glad there is some mature fare out there (maybe not Revenge, but at least partly).

Love, C.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Bryan:

even extraordinary actors that could bring mediocre characters to life

There is at least one of those: Breaking Bad's Giancarlo Esposito as the more prominent villain character in the pilot, doing the by now familiar dance of the respected guest actor in a critically lauded but little-watched show who plays watered-down versions of his character on network hits. Of the cast, Esposito is the one who comes closest to popping off the screen, even if he can't do very much with the material he was given.

I feel like we've seen this guy dozens of times before in these post-apocalyptic stories, but I couldn't say exactly where.

Someone, I can't remember who, called this character the show's Hurley, which seems about right.

Foxessa:

Pilots are often not good. It takes a while.

True, but on the other hand the pilot's purpose is to reel viewers in, if only on the strength of potential, and not being able to do that (or even being aware that doing so is necessary) is not a good sign for a show's future. Also, while pilots usually don't fully spell out a show's strengths and weaknesses, they can give a good indication of what the writers are concentrating on and where it's possible that they'll try to improve. So though the pilot for Revolution isn't very good, there's nothing in it to rule out better storytelling down the line, and as I say it lays the groundwork for what could be a fun story. The pilot for The Mob Doctor, meanwhile, makes it very clear that no one involved with the show is interested in making the main character as morally compromised as she needs to be for the show to work, which is why I'm not planning to watch any more of it.

I actually did give up on Scandal after its pilot. I admire Shonda Rhymes - she's the perfect example of how network TV is a much better place for shows about women, and in her case it's also women of color - but I've never been a big fan of any of her shows, and Scandal seemed to suffer from too much of what I found tedious about Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, and Off the Map, mainly the nonstop, hyperbolic praise of the main character's skills and the emphasis on forbidden romance.

Foxessa said...

Exactly -- Ooooooo She AWESOME, AWESOMER, AWESOMEST! Additionally, Scandal is all We are GOOD PEOPLE AND THEY ARE NOT. What got interesting about Scandal is that in the course of the season we see Ms. Pope makes some really big mistakes, i.e. what happens when you work from your gut, and they aren't always doing good things for good people -- and what does this mean does get asked.

Like I gave up on Ringer after it's pilot. If it wasn't that Scandal was streaming from netflix I would have given up on it too, but the next ep streamed immediately, and by ep 3 I was hooked.

I am not saying that Revolution will be better as it goes on -- from what I've heard/read, I've not even bothered with the pilot!

Love, C.

Bryan M. White said...

Oh yes, Gus Frings. I almost mentioned him as an exception. Unfortunately, of course, he's not quite enough to carry the show, and like you said, they haven't given him much to work with him.

I'm willing to keep watching, just to see where they're going with it, but it feels like it's another show destined for a very short run. Details do often get ironed out after the pilot, though. I was watching the pilot of Seinfeld the other day, and there always seems to be this somewhat unconscious game of "spot the difference" that you play whenever you see a pilot of a long running show.

Foxessa said...

Adding this, to emphasize an observation previously made: Scandal has a whole lot of levels of significance for an African American woman. Every one of my sister girlfriends told me I HAD to watch it. This is every one of them, no matter what they do, what their age, where they live.

It's also authentically sexy. Alas, that the sexy is between a republican and a non ... that's the part I can't figure out. However, the sizzle is really there on the screen so you believe in it.

Love, C.

zahrawithaz said...

Very much enjoying your thoughts on Revolution. I agree that it has immense potential to go wrong, or else to improve, and while the former is more likely, I am probably going to stick around long enough to find out.

I particularly agree about the stepmother character being one of the most interesting (and really hope we get more of her), though I also thought Grace was given a degree of moral complexity I didn't expect based on her short screen time. The final scene actually turned around my sci-fi-hating partner, who had complained loudly through the first half of the pilot, and made her interested enough to propose watching the next episode.

I also agree that a lot depends on whether the show uses Charlie's intense naivete as the basis for interesting character development or stupid plots and political points. For that matter I thought they were setting up the former-Google-comic-relief guy for character development as well as tech support when that inevitable moment arrives in the plot, but maybe I'm just optimistic.

And while I'm not much of Hunger Games fan, I wonder when pop culture producers will realize that it's not in fact the bow that made Katniss Everdeen interesting.

Oh, and despite living in a post-technological world, all the characters have access to modern personal grooming products and ample designer clothing, with the tragic exception of the heroine's inability to find a shirt that covers her entire midriff.

Thank you for this sentence!

Btw, I am also a diehard Scandal fan, who enjoys the nonstop hyperbolic praise of a hero who is also a woman of color--I think that trend in Rhimes shows has everything to do with subject position, and countering the negative or low-expectations messages. SR has just found a larger pop culture trend she can capitalize on. For me in this case, the fact that Kerry Washington has apparently never met a line she can't sell it makes it feel earned! {Would that the same could be said for her love interest.)

Gareth said...

I try not to make snap judgements, and I haven't seen either of these pilots. But the idea of the mob using a doctor as an assassin is very off-putting to me. It just seems too far-fetched for the mobsters to expect a doctor to follow that order. There are real mob doctors, but I don't think they're ever told to kill anyone.
As for Revolution, there's been lots of complaints that it's ripping off S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire series. I don't agree, because the premise is too obvious to be anyone's property. But for all the flaws of that series, Stirling did actually come to grips with how horrific the premise is. It essentially turns the entire world into the Warsaw Ghetto. So the characters of this show should be the equivalent of Holocaust survivors in 1960. This is not the impression I'm getting from the promotions, to say the least.

Josh said...

Hi Abigail,

Have you even done a post about your recommendations for well-done, thoughtful TV shows that do make a good attempt at exploring the complex issues you mention here? I've been a regular (though silent) reader of your blog for several years now and don't recall ever seeing such a thing.

I've never been a TV watcher (once I grew out of cartoons as a little kid, that was basically the end of my TV experience), and every time I've tried TV (whether SFF-inclined shows or otherwise) I always get frustrated by how shallow it seems and reach for a book instead. I really enjoy the insights in your book reviews, so I'd be very curious to hear your thoughts on the worthwhile TV out there.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm very late replying to this comment, Josh, for which I apologize. I've never written an actual recommendation post for TV shows, though if you look through the television label on this blog you'll find a lot of posts about shows I like. Right now, I'd say the best shows on TV are Homeland, The Good Wife, Treme, Parks and Recreation, Community, and Breaking Bad. In cancelled shows that dealt interestingly with issues of politics and gender, I'd recommend (with some reservations because the storytelling in both of these isn't always the best) The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Caprica, and without those reservations at all, Deep Space Nine and Avatar: The Last Airbender. And, of course, there are the classic SF shows of the last decade and a half, Buffy, Farscape, and Firefly, which have a depth of story and character that I think any TV fan should become acquainted with.

Josh said...

Thank you so much! I really appreciate these recommendations. I'm looking forward to getting started checking them out.

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