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.