Saturday, October 13, 2012

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2012 Edition, Part 3

We're coming near to the end of what has been a singularly unimpressive pilot season.  Progress report on the shows I've stuck with: Revolution has so far failed to ignite and if it doesn't within the next few weeks I'll probably ditch it.  Vegas's second episode bored me, so it's been dropped.  Elementary, on the other hand, had a strong second episode that deepened the two main characters, but the show still doesn't feel much like Holmes.  Last Resort is maintaining the intensity of its pilot but still not giving the impression that it has an idea of where to take its premise.  There are still a few stragglers left, and they'll be trickling on screen over the next month, but right now I'm willing to pronounce the 2012 fall pilot season a bust.  Better luck next year.
  • The Paradise - The BBC's prospective answer to Downton Abbey draws loosely from the novel Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies' Paradise) by Émile Zola, moving its action from post-Napoleonic Paris to an unspecified English city some time in the 19th century, but maintaining its focus on the titular establishment, a department store specializing in ladieswear and accessories.  Our heroes are Moray (Emun Elliott), the store's owner, a consummate flatterer who is eager to expand and make his store the hub for fashionable women in the city, Kathrine (Elaine Cassidy), his not-quite fiancée who is both repulsed and intrigued by Moray's ambition and relentless striving, but who he may be taking advantage of in order to get at her father's money, and Denise (Joanna Vanderham), whose uncle's smaller store is being crowded out by The Paradise, and who takes a job there as a shop girl.  Despite being based on a novel, The Paradise's approach seems to be more open-ended--the better, presumably, to compete with a soap like Downton Abbey--with individual episodes centering around some self-contained plot while overarching plotlines proceed in the background.  Unfortunately, these overarching plotlines veer decidedly towards the soapy--the mystery surrounding the death of Moray's first wife, the mean girl-style disputes between Denise and her colleagues, the burgeoning love triangle between Moray, Katherine, and Denise.  And going by the second episode, in which a rich, unhappily married customer kisses a shop boy and then accuses him of assaulting her to protect her reputation, which gives everyone in the cast the excuse to trot out all the rape apology standbys--but why did she invite him to her house, he's such a nice guy, think of how this will destroy his life--and have them be entirely true, the self-contained plots aren't much to look forward to either.  Which is a shame, because at its core (and, from what I've read about it, in the original book) The Paradise has an interesting concept that I don't think period dramas have done much to address so far--the growth of capitalism, and the social changes that it spurred among both entrepreneurs and consumers.  The fact that the business in question here isn't something male-associated like industry or trains but women's retail, and that Denise discovers in herself a talent for salesmanship and a thirst for success that only Moray truly understands, might have made for an interesting angle on this topic, if only the show were more interested in it than in its more soapy elements.

  • Hunted - A British-American co-production written by X-Files stalwart Frank Spotnitz, Hunted is a spy thriller about Sam (Melissa George), an operative for a private intelligence company who is betrayed and nearly killed by someone close to her, and who returns to her employers in order to discover who betrayed her and why.  The premise and setting are reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh's Haywire, as is the show's style--lots of atmospheric locations shots, overbearing camera filters (orange for the Middle East, almost colorless in London), offbeat soundtrack (though often low-key and environmental, which sharply contrasts with Haywire), very little dialogue, mainly because the distrustful Sam spends a lot of time on her own, her silent actions or flashbacks, rather than her words, working to fill in the plot (this might also be the show playing to its strengths--when characters do speak it's usually to utter trite clichés such as "Ask yourself this: why won't you trust me?  Is it because you don't love me anymore, or because you're afraid you still do?").  While it's nice to see a show about a woman that doesn't feel compelled to surround her with allies and helpmeets, Hunted doesn't really avoid many of the other clichés that dominate shows about vengeful female spies.  George isn't exactly Gina Carano as far as her body type or believability as an imposing fighter are concerned, and where most shows of this type motivate their heroine through the kind of emotional connections that women are supposed to care exclusively about--a failed relationship, a dead parent, a lost child--Sam is motivated by all three, and even finds herself, at the end of the first episode, embedded as a tutor in the home of a widower with a young son, which is no doubt intended to play on her emotions.  So far what Hunted has going for it is Sam's calculating, emotionless presence at its core, but though George is game the writing isn't quite there to make Sam a three-dimensional figure, or to overcome the clichés that permeate the show.

  • Arrow - Pretty much everything I read about this show before watching the pilot compared to Smallville, which is perhaps understandable given that it's on the CW, that the main character was a recurring figure on the earlier show (though Arrow offers a new spin), and that Smallville was the last show based on a major comic book superhero to hit it big.  But Arrow lacks Smallville's central conceit--the fact that it was a prequel to the familiar Superman mythos.  It kicks off where the Green Arrow's traditional origin story does--having been shipwrecked on an island for years, billionaire Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) trains himself as a super-fighter and, for some reason, archer, and upon his rescue returns to his home town of Starling City to fight evildoers.  Far more than Smallville, Arrow reminds me of last year's disastrous attempt at crafting an original superhero show, The Cape--like that show, it suffers from a toxic combination of po-faced seriousness and cartoonish plot points and dialogue--and even more than that, of Batman Begins.  Some the similarities between Batman and the Green Arrow stem from the comics--both are billionaires who have secretly trained themselves into unbeatable fighters, augmented by gadgetry and unlimited financial reserves--but the Arrow pilot seems almost to be cribbing from Batman Begins's script--a former wastrel, Oliver is motivated by the death of his father, who believed that it was his responsibility to "save" Starling City, to do the same, choosing to do so as a vigilante, and he continues to wear the mask of a playboy while wishing that he could reveal the truth to his ex-girlfriend (Katie Cassidy), a crusading lawyer.  There are some interesting original notes here and there--Oliver's ex hates him not because of his playboy lifestyle but because he was on the fateful cruise with her sister, who died in the wreck, and unlike the Batman films the pilot doesn't shy away from the emotional toll that his years on the island have taken on him (though on the other hand it is entirely blasé about Oliver's willingness to kill, which he does quite often in the pilot).  The problem is that Amell is more Tom Welling than Christian Bale, and the best he can muster in scenes where he should be conveying intensity, grief, or shame, is a uniform woodenness (the show tries to compensate for this with voiceovers that tell us what Oliver is feeling, but these are not only overwrought but read by Amell, who fails to imbue them with emotion in the same way he fails to convey that emotion in his performance), which neither the writing nor the acting around him do anything to compensate for.  Arrow is clearly building up to a tangled mythology.  The pilot features Lost-like flashbacks to Oliver's time on the island, where he clearly wasn't alone, since he learned martial arts, languages, Eastern philosophy, and of course archery (thus completing the Batman Begins parallel), and he returns to Starling City with a very deliberate plan, and a list of enemies to get rid of.  What it doesn't give us is a reason to care about this mission--for all the crap it (rightfully) takes, Smallville had a freshness and levity to it, at least when it started out, that made it intriguing.  Arrow is too self-serious, but not nearly accomplished enough to justify that seriousness.

  • Nashville -  So, should I be happy that the show touted as the great white hope of this miserable pilot season centers around two women, or sad that they spend its pilot--and look set to spend the rest of the series--fighting over fame, money, and men?  That's maybe being a little glib: the two women around which Nashville circles, middle aged country music diva Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton) and up-and-coming crossover sensation Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) are complex and well drawn, and their dispute--Rayna's latest album is struggling, and her label is trying to force her to tour with, and open for, Juliette in order to expose her to a younger audience, while Juliette is eager to gain respectability by poaching Rayna's professional crew, and particularly her band manager and former lover Deacon (Charlie Esten)--isn't a catfight so much as it is the struggle between two players in a system with only limited spots at the top, both of whom happen to be women and to suffer from the pitfalls of being a woman in the entertainment industry.  But the pilot also veers frequently into the realm of too-obvious soap, and most of the its subplots--a love triangle between Deacon's niece Scarlett (Clare Bowen) and two aspiring songwriters, a mayoral campaign thrown into disarray by Rayna's oily father (Powers Boothe in a performance so over the top that it will either become the show's greatest asset or its greatest weakness, it's too soon to tell which) backing her failed businessman husband (Eric Close) as a surprise candidate, whatever tangled history there is between Rayna and Deacon--are uninspiring, which makes it difficult to hope that its main plot strand will develop in intelligent ways.  Also, I'm saying this as someone who has been spoiled by Treme, but as a show about the world of music Nashville leaves much to be desired.  The glimpses we get of the process and craft of music-making lack the spontaneity, the messiness, and the obvious sense of effort that Treme captures so well--Scarlett, for example, is an obvious Jewel stand-in who writes "poems" to which she sometimes hears music in her head, and when one of her potential love interests finds her notebook he convinces her to work on them together; at the end of the episode, they perform, on the fly and with no preparation or rehearsals, a flawless, implausibly professional version of this song.  Even worse, the music itself is rather dull.  Rayna complains that Juliette's music is mindless, incomprehensible country-pop, but her songs aren't much better, and there's very little sense in the pilot of the richness of country music and its history (only Scarlett's song at the episode's end, and an earlier one performed by Deacon, are truly attention-grabbing).

    Still, comparing every new music-based show that comes along to Treme isn't fair--we should be grateful, I suppose, that Nashville isn't trying to be Glee, since that's clearly where the impetus for it comes from--and even without a genuinely revelatory look at Nashville's music industry, there are things to watch for here.  More precisely, two things, the two leads.  Britton brings warmth and intelligence to a role that could easily have devolved into a trite diva-ish stereotype.  She makes Rayna seem more human than her well-worn storyline has any right being, and convinces us that there's a real person under a plot borrowed from recent Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Country Strong and a million other country music sob stories.  Panettiere, amazingly, has to contend with an even bigger bag of clichés--the young sexpot with a tragic past and well-concealed vulnerabilities--and whether as a deliberate choice or simply as a result of a limited range, she defuses them by playing Juliette as inhumanly cold and calculating, creating the impression of a smart, ruthless young woman who knows that all the performances she's putting on--of innocence, of sexiness, of respect towards her country music forerunners--are but a means to an end.  It's a performance that could become wearying very quickly, but for now it's just brazen enough to be interesting.  By concentrating on Rayna and Juliette--and hopefully by putting them together more than the pilot does--Nashville could find a core of genuine drama amidst its soapy subplots that could make it worth watching.  After all, even if they're fighting each, shows about smart, ambitious women should be celebrated.

  • Beauty and the Beast - This show has been taking a pummeling at the hands of reviewers, and though they're not wrong that it is terrible, I can't help but feel that the opprobrium is a little extreme, and motivated more by the obviously bone-headed decisions that drive this remake of the cheesy-but-romantic 80s original--retooling the show into an obvious Twilight ripoff in which Vincent is a soldier experimented on by the government who periodically turns into a rage monster, and calling him a "beast" because he has a small facial scar (because as we all know, a scar running down a man's cheek makes him look horrifying, not sexy and dangerous)--rather than their execution.  Which is, again, quite bad, but not significantly worse than, say, Arrow, which has been getting more favorable reviews, sometimes from the same sources that have panned Beauty and the Beast.  The two shows have similar flaws--wooden leads (though Kristin Kreuk tries so much harder than Arrow's Stpehen Amell to inhabit her character, here a tough police detective), lazy plots (the pilot centers around a murder investigation that not even Kreuk's Katherine seems very interested in--certainly not once Jay Ryan's Vincent turns up), trite character motivations (Vincent is oh-so-tortured by what's been done to him; Katherine, in a plot ripped straight from Castle, is trying to find out who killed her mother), and very little chemistry between the two leads (though this is less down to the actors and more the fault of a script that gives them little to do in their shared scenes but gaze longingly at each other).  There are, on the other hand, points about the show that I like--Katherine has a female, Hispanic partner, which might make them the only all-female cop duo on TV right now, and Katherine's mother is played by an Asian woman, which is more than Smallville ever did for Kreuk, as far as I can recall.  They're obviously not enough to make Beauty and the Beast watchable--especially since the mother, as I've mentioned, is quickly killed off, and the partner will no doubt be ditched for Vincent soon enough--but they are enough to make me a little upset at the disparity between the reactions to Beauty and the Beast and Arrow, which may very well be linked to the former's girly subject matter.

6 comments:

Foxessa said...

When in London, on a night recovering from days straight of much walking, I viewed the first The Paradise ep streaming from the BBC. Gack, I go, seeing Minnie Mude er um, what's her name in The Paradise -- ah, Pauline -- show up from Larkrise to Candleford, and she's playing exactly the same character! I'm looking at Denise and thinking, Laura Timmons. I'm seeing the street and thinking, the Pratts' The Stores, except it's supposed to be Laura's uncle's little dry goods shop instead of Laura's aunt's post office.

Also, what year is it? Where is it?

Ayup -- Lark Rise to Candleford all over again which is no coincidence as Paradise is brought to us by the same team as Larkrise. They couldn't even bother to file off the serial numbers.

BBC bills this as "an intoxicating love story." Stupifying is more like it. Larkrise didn't start out that way, but by third season it got there.

Rather than a generous-hearted, loving examination of rural poverty and provincial class and manners of a specific time and place Larkrise focused on theme park facade and clothing. You never could figure out in which era this tale was located; it slipped around all over the place. The Paradise is doing the same thing, ignoring the class savagery that Zola rose to -- and it sure isn't located in London!

Of course I may be so harsh on Larkrise because it turned one of my favorite English television actors,Brendan Coyle -- how brilliant he is in North and South -- into Bates on Downton Abbey, one of the worst written, worst acted shows evah! (I also saw some eps of season three while in a hotel room in England -- I couldn't help myself -- and it's EVEN WORSE than season two, which was EVEN WORSE than season one.)

Love, C.

Gareth Wilson said...

You're right about Kreuk's character on Smallville. She started with two white parents, found her real biological father, and he was white too. So the character was white. I go back and forth on my reaction to this. Why shouldn't Kreuk be able to play a white character? But on the other hand, would it have killed them to cast an Asian parent, and add a bit of realism? Perhaps having had an student who looked almost exactly like Kreuk but was 100% Chinese is biasing me a bit.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

As far as I know, Kreuk herself is biracial, and she has no problem "passing" for white (it depends a lot on how she's styled - on Chuck, for example, she had lighter, wavier hair, which deemphasized her Asian features, whereas on B&tB her hair is darker and straighter). But why should she have to? Why shouldn't Lana Lang have been biracial as well? It's hard not to conclude that her ability to "pass" is the reason that Kreuk got the job on Smallville in the first place, and that if her genetic lottery had tended in the other direction she wouldn't be a semi-famous starlet right now. So it is refreshing that B&tB casts her as a biracial character as if it were no big deal, and gives her a partner who is a woman of color (though as I say both the Asian mother and the Latina partner are sidelined for her white love interest).

Gareth Wilson said...

Yeah, Kreuk's character being biracial on B&tB is one of the few things in its favour. As for the rest of it, the appearance of the Beast is really unforgivable, destroying the whole point of the story. I actually think the CW is underestimating its audience here. The old CBS show did OK with a animalistic Beast, and thinking that a young female audience would be too shallow for the same thing is a kind of sexism itself.

joe said...

what are your thoughs on the female team in rizzoli and isles?

joe said...

oh! and of course also "elementary" with lucy liu as joan watson. they infused this show with a couple of more non-caucasian actors as well (well more than is usual, i think, for hollywood), though the show with the most non-caucasian characters i've seen is "beauty and the beast".

abigail, did you ever think about trying asian shows? if i had to suggest a show, i'd pick this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_Hunter_%28TV_series%29

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