Thursday, October 04, 2012

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2012 Edition, Part 2

Well, that was a long week and a half of new TV, and with not much to show for it in the end.  These write-ups represent a small minority of the new shows to premiere this fall--I haven't said anything about the season's new comedies, which run the gamut from terrible (Partners), to underwhelming (Ben and Kate, The Mindy Project), to competent but uninspiring (Go On, Animal Practice), to bizarre Alf retreads (The Neighbors).  There are some more new shows premiering later this month, but so far I'm not very enthusiastic about this new crop of shows.
  • Vegas - The premise of this show, which follows the (presumably fictionalized) exploits of legendary Las Vegas Sheriff Ralph Lamb (Dennis Quaid) in the early 60s, marks it as yet another attempt, after the failure of last year's Pan Am and The Playboy Club, to crack the Mad Men code for a network audience (only this time without pesky women running around all over the place--there is only one woman in the cast, a district attorney played by Carrie-Anne Moss who is clearly intended as a love interest for Lamb and, so far, not much else).  But the pilot doesn't recall Mad Men nearly as much as it does Hawaii Five-0--as in that show, you have an outsider, maverick cop (this time a literal cowboy) in an exotic (and beautifully shot) location, who is tasked by the powers that be to put together a posse (including, of course, a Native American tracker) to clean up town without all that guff of due process and civil rights (the 60s setting means that Lamb has a little more justification than Hawaii Five-0's Steve McGarrett for ignoring the rights of suspects, and yet somehow there is significantly less violence towards suspects in the Vegas pilot than in any of the Hawaii Five-0 episodes I watched).  The Vegas pilot is less thrilling than Hawaii Five-0's (still one of the best pilots I've ever seen), and the investigation at its core is predictable and not very engaging even to the characters (the show also loses a lot of points for making its inaugural case the murder of a young woman--I suppose because that's what women in big cities are for), but it is nevertheless an entertaining hour.  Quaid is good, and clearly having a lot of fun playing a cowboy cop, and though the rest of the cast is comparatively underserved no one seems noticeably bad in their role.  What's lacking is a sense of 60s Vegas as a unique place with its own personality and rules, and for long stretches it's easy to forget that the show is set in the past or in a city that has such a hold on the American imagination.  That is presumably about to change, as a major subplot in the pilot involves the arrival of New York mobster Vinnie Savino (Michael Chiklis, so far wasted) who has been brought in to clean house at one of the casinos and seems set on a collision course with Lamb--especially when he has Lamb's predecessor killed--but there's so little indication in the pilot of how that plot will shake out that it's hard to know whether it will be Vegas's saving grace or yet another by the numbers cliché-fest.  Several reviews I've read have expressed great hopes for Vegas's future, but so far I'm finding it hard to see anything in the show that might grow into excellent television.

  • Elementary - Writing about the new American Sherlock Holmes series proved a bit of a challenge--I had to watch the pilot twice before I could work out how to approach the show with just the right amount of reference to Sherlock.  The problem isn't simply that Elementary was originally conceived as a reboot of Sherlock, and that when that deal fell through the show's creators found themselves scrambling to find a minimum, safe-from-lawsuits distance from the British show (thus leading to the recasting of Watson as a woman).  No, the main problem is that we already have a modernized Sherlock Holmes that is perfect in almost every respect and yet somehow manages to be terrible a sizable portion of the time, so it's almost impossible to approach Elementary--which after all lacks a lot of the problem points of Sherlock, most notably the unwieldy 90 minute timeslot and Steven Moffat's rampant misogyny--without expecting it to be just like Sherlock, except consistently good.  And the fact is, Elementary does avoid many of the problems that make Sherlock so frustrating.  Johnny Lee Miller may be the most hilariously unimaginative choice of casting for Holmes ever, having alternated the roles of Dr. Frankenstein and the monster with Benedict Cumberbatch in the National Theater's recent, blockbuster production of Frankenstein, but he is good at conveying Holmes's mingled brilliance and cluelessness, and his portrayal of Holmes as being deeply affronted by the crimes he investigates is not only more in line with Conan Doyle's original vision of the character but also a welcome reprieve from Moffat's sociopath Holmes, and from his fetishization, in both Sherlock and Doctor Who, of insensitive, self-absorbed men who are forgiven their bad behavior because of their brilliance.  Lucy Liu, meanwhile, while significantly less successful than Martin Freeman's Watson (Sherlock's greatest and most undervalued asset) defuses, just by her existence, the prevailing contempt for women that permeates Sherlock's every scene (which leaves just the background radiation misogyny of American network television--other than Watson, the only women in the pilot are a nameless prostitute with no lines, and the case of the week, yet another murdered woman).

    The problem is that while the show works as the anti-Sherlock, it isn't very convincing as Holmes.  It's not just that the show's world doesn't achieve the heady fusion between modernity and Victorian London that was one of Sherlock's chief accomplishments in its first season (though less prominent in its second), or that without Steven Moffat in the writing room there are less moments of awe-inspiring cleverness in the script (those moments are anyway a double-edged sword, as both Sherlock and Doctor Who tend to use them to obscure the sloppiness of their larger plots), but that the investigation at the pilot's core in no way feels like a Sherlock Holmes investigation.  Though there are Holmes-ian observations and deductions in the script, they take a back seat to the kind of police-work familiar from most TV procedurals, and Holmes even relies on police files, resources, and forensics.  He comes off as a clever detective, but one very much in line with the other damaged, cerebral sorts who have populated police procedurals for decades, cops who have a bit of Holmes in their DNA but have watered that influence down with constant repetition.  The whole show, in fact, feels like yet another iteration of a certain type of American procedural about a quirky, brilliant man and his long-suffering, damaged female partner--a more sombre Castle, or a less quirky Life--and especially when one considers that Watson, arguably the most crucial ingredient for a successful Holmes retelling, comes away from the pilot underexplored and looking rather generic--as if the show had taken the "shocking" approach of changing the character's gender solely in order to slot it into a familiar, caretaking type--it's hard to see how Elementary plans to stake its claim as a meaningful entry in the Holmes cannon.  I'm willing to give the show a few more episodes, mainly because I still hope for a modern Holmes that doesn't leave me as furious and frustrated as Sherlock does, but at the moment I'm not very hopeful.

  • Last Resort - Hands down the best-made pilot of the fall season so far, but also the one whose competence and narrative sweep feel the least indicative of how the show itself will turn out.  The show has a silly premise--when the captain of a nuclear sub (Andre Braugher) questions dodgy orders to nuke Pakistan, he is fired upon by his own people, and retreats to a Pacific island while in DC, a shadowy coup appear to be taking place that also engulfs the families of the sub's crew, navy brass, NATO personnel, and a military contractor who has hardware on the rogue sub--and while the pilot moves fast enough and features enough thrilling events to distract from this fact that still leaves a show whose purpose is to untangle and work through the implications of that premise, which may not be possible in any satisfying way.  The pilot's approach is to constantly bombard the characters with crises that keep them from processing the bigger picture or articulating a response to it, which means that the show is spared, at least so far, from having to express meaningful ideas about global politics or the relationship between government and the military, but also results in an overstuffed pilot that hardly lets the characters breathe--aside from Braugher, we're introduced to Scott Speedman, an admiring XO with a cute wife at home, and Daisy Betts, the second officer who struggles with being a woman in the military and the daughter of an admiral, but though the actors are game the characters never emerge as anything beyond these familiar types, and the rest of the crew divides itself along the too-familiar law-and-order vs. independent morality, casual violence vs. alert pacifism lines so quickly that we might as well be watching an episode of Stargate: Universe.  This might change in later episodes, but what little handling there is of Last Resort's bigger questions in the pilot doesn't paint an encouraging picture of what's to come: though Betts's character is well-done and used to address the problems of women in the military, another scene in which Speedman mechanically questions female crewmembers about sexual harassment on the ship while they giggle at the implausibility of such a situation feels unjustifiably glib--given the terrifying prevalence of rape and sexual assault in the US military, I'm not sure attempts to curtail sexual harassment should the butt of jokes.  Similarly, though it's heartening that Braugher's sanity and choices are questioned throughout the pilot, including by Speedman and Betts, the fact that the pilot so casually justifies his takeover of a populated island--and does so mainly by painting the island's de facto leader as a small-time hustler who is more than capable of violence--while completely ignoring the fact that, de facto leader or no, the people on the island are the citizens of some sovereign nation, is worrying.  It's hard to know, judging by its pilot, where Last Resort will fall on these issues and how it plans to develop its story, but in this post-24, post-Battlestar Galactica TV landscape, it's hard to hope that this will be in particularly intelligent directions.

  • 666 Park Avenue - To bring us back to the network vs. cable debate with which I opened this fall's pilot reviews, one of the traits that does seem ubiquitous to networks is a tendency to produce watered-down imitations of last year's big cable success--as in the case of Vegas above.  666 Park Avenue is an even more blatant--and significantly less successful--effort, clearly trying to coast off the success of the zany American Horror Story, but without all the potentially offputting zaniness.  The premise--which also borrows heavily from the 1997 film The Devil's Advocate--sees a young couple trying to make it in New York land in a seemingly too good to be true situation when they get a job as resident managers of a swanky Upper East Side apartment building, only to discover that it harbors dark secrets.  Terry O'Quinn plays the building's owner--and, presumably, the devil himself--with a woodenness that make me regret his Lost-driven elevation from ubiquitous character actor--at which he excelled--to star.  Slightly more interesting is Vanessa Williams as his wife, though this is mainly because the template that 666 Park Avenue is so blatantly drawing from doesn't have room for it for the antagonist's wife, and it's not clear yet whether Williams's character is a willing ally of O'Quinn's or a dupe, or even whether she's human.  But the character herself suffers from the same flaws as O'Quinn's, our leads, and all the other neighbors encountered in the pilot--she is a walking cliché, whose every line and facial expression feels predictable from a thousand previous stories.  It seems to have been lost on the show's creators that the reason for American Horror Story's success--despite the fact that by most objective yardsticks it is a terrible, shlocky, melodramatic show--is its outrageousness, the fact that there is no boundary of good taste, good manners, or decent behavior that the show will not cross in its attempts to get a rise out of its audience.  666 Park Avenue, on the other hand, is painfully bland.  O'Quinn's character traps his tenants' souls by offering them a wish, but these are predictably milquetoast--a widower asks for his wife back, but of course she Comes Back Wrong; a struggling playwright lusts after a neighbor he spies from his window, only for her to turn up in his life as his wife's new assistant; a mediocre violinist sells his soul for ten years of artistic perfection.  None of this is new, and the show doesn't even try to shade in these stories in a way that will set them apart from the crowd.  The pilot centers on the heroine's (Rachael Taylor) investigations of the building, which will no doubt lead to a tangled mythology down the line, but so far the building at the show's heart lack the character and the sense of bloody, tragic history that surrounded the house in which the first season of American Horror Story takes place--it feels as bland as the characters and their stories.

4 comments:

ibmiller said...

I tend to agree about the pilot - it avoids many of Sherlock's problems at the cost of basically not being Holmes.

However, I think the second episode is a significant improvement - and continues to take Holmes places that Sherlock is unable to go.

Completely agree that Liu, while really quite good, isn't an update of Watson on the level of Freeman. Hopefully her character will grow into something like that - this being American TV, they won't have the incredibly annoying 3x90 format of Sherlock, and thus hopefully fix the problems a lot more quickly and provide more room to breathe than the BBC series.

I will say that Miller, while not providing quite the same kind of magnetic performance that Brett or Cumberbatch have, is stunningly like the Strand Magazine Sidney Paget illustrations I grew up with. And he's miles better than whatever Robert Downey thinks he's doing with the character.

rushthatspeaks said...

The best new show I've seen yet this year has been Gravity Falls, which is an animated riff on the X-Files/Twin Peaks genre aimed at middle-grades but with a clever snap to the writing and an essential willingness to go to weird and dark places which make it one of the more successful shows I've seen at straddling an awkward audience age divide.

It is also consistently hilarious, and has one of the better female characters I've seen in quite some time in its twelve-year-old co-protagonist Mabel, who is eccentric in the ways that twelve-year-old girls are actually eccentric instead of the ways that media tends to think twelve-year-old girls are eccentric. (Mabel, for instance, may well have the planet's largest collection of neon sweaters with cute and stupid designs on them, and has been known to wear nacho curly chips as earrings.) And it has a sibling relationship at its center which is based on mutual respect and liking instead of traditional TV bickering.

One of the better SFF-nal TV shows of recent years.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

ibmiller:

I agree, the second episode of Elementary (which I hadn't watched when this pieces was posted) is a definite improvement on the first. I'm still not sold on Liu's Watson - I can't help but feel that switching the character's gender has trapped her irrevocably in the helpmeet role to which female leads in procedurals such as this one are often relegated - but I did appreciate that the episode not only brought in a bit of Holmesiana - Holmes's insistence that he has limited space in his brain and therefore can't burden himself with useless information - but used it as a means of puncturing Holmes's mask of indifference and lack of emotion. I'm not quite a fan of the show yet, but I'm more hopeful about it than I was last week.

rushthatspeaks:

Absolutely agreed about Gravity Falls, which I haven't mentioned here mainly because it's a summer show. I definitely agree that the show's greatest strengths are the sibling relationship at its core and the character of Mabel, in which light I could wish it spent less time on episodes in which Dipper goes off on his own or on his unattainable crush on older girl Wendy, but that's a minor complaint in light of what is, I agree, one of the most successful new shows of the year.

Chuk said...

I'd like to echo the Gravity Falls comments -- I watched the episode with the video game character brought to life recently and it was excellent.

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