Monday, January 14, 2013

Winter Crop: Thoughts on Midseason Shows

It's long past the point where new shows are a fall thing--long past the point, in fact, where I ought to have been making this sort of review a quarterly business.  But somehow this winter season seems particularly fecund, possibly as a result of the fall's disappointing crop, possibly because British TV seems to take the end of the year as its time to launch new shows, which means this report covers series from both sides of the pond.  So far, I can't say that the winter crop is making up for the fall's disappointments--the only 2012 show I'm still following is Elementary--but I suppose I watch too much TV anyway.
  • A Young Doctor's Notebook - A funny little project from Sky, this short (four half-hour episodes) series is based (rather loosely, it from what I gather) on Mikhail Bulgakov's novel of the same name (sometimes also translated as A Country Doctor's Notebook).  In 1934, a successful Moscow doctor (John Hamm) is being investigated for writing fraudulent morphine prescriptions, and reminiscences about his first assignment in 1917, as the only physician in a remote country hospital, where he's played by Daniel Radcliffe.  It more than strains credulity to believe that Radcliffe might grow into Hamm (and the show doesn't even seem to be working very hard to sell this argument--a scene in the first episode even takes advantage of the twenty-odd centimeters of difference between their heights), and it's hard not to believe that the actors were chosen first and foremost for their name recognition--if nothing else, casting John Hamm as a suave, sophisticated ubermensch who turns out to come from humble, uncouth origins and whose worldliness is revealed as a hollow charade is more than a little on the nose.  But the two actors have a winning rapport, which the show takes great advantage of, since Hamm appears in Radcliffe's part of the story to needle and advise his younger self, to the extent that it's not clear whose story we're seeing, and who the point of view character is--is it Hamm, who cringes at his bumbling, youthful inexperience and puppyish enthusiasm, or Radcliffe, shuddering at his future callousness and growing increasingly suspicious of Hamm's drug-seeking?

    The show is mainly worth watching for the interplay between these two characters, and the actors more than hold their own against each other (Radcliffe in particular shows how wasted he was as an epic hero--he's made for comedy), but what's lost in the shuffle is the actual country doctor's experience in revolutionary Russia.  The show pays lip service to the notion that the patients Radcliffe deals with are superstitious, ignorant peasants whose disgusting sicknesses and injuries are matched only by their unwillingness to trust his new ideas about medicine, but in practice his and Hamm's characters obscure the one-off patients.  The show's half-hour format, though a wise choice in light of the fact that its brand of comedy, a combination of humiliation humor and body horror, would be hard to take in larger doses, also means that the patient characters get short shrift, though the hospital's staff--including Adam Godley as a tedious orderly and Vicki Pepperdine and Rosie Cavaliero as nurses--are more finely sketched-in, and allowed their own comedic moments in response to Radcliffe's obvious terror at being asked to treat actual patients.  Without a more powerful sense of the unique place (and time) in which it's set, there's a chance that the show's humor will wear thin, and it's possible that the writers are willing to let that happen and rely solely on their two leads' star power to drive the show, but for the time being A Young Doctor's Notebook is unique and weirdly compelling.

  • Ripper Street - This show, on the other hand, is just plain weird.  Set in the East End of London in 1889, a year after Jack the Ripper terrorized and inflamed the city, the show concentrates on a police force struggling to rebuild their reputation and the public's trust.  The main character, Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfayden), is an actual historical figure, who worked with Frederick Abberline to try to apprehend the Ripper, but he's presumably heavily fictionalized, since everything else about Ripper Street fairly screams that fact.  Reid is flanked by his thuggish sergeant, Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn, best known as Game of Thrones's Bronn) and a former American Pinkerton and army surgeon, Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), and the script is littered with the occasional burst of flowery language that presumably indicates it was written with a continuous loop of Deadwood playing in the background, but the fact that Jackson is a forensic savant who produces CSI-like results with 19th century tools and techniques is but the most blatant indication that Ripper Street aims less at historical drama and more at dressing up the standard police procedural.  The show seems to take a particular pleasure in porting or presaging 20th century developments into its setting--the first episode opens with tourists being taken on a Jack the Ripper walking tour whose guide's gruesome and well-rehearsed patter would be familiar to anyone who has taken its modern day equivalent, and when the victim of the week turns out to have been involved in a dirty pictures ring that is taking advantage of that newfangled moving pictures contraption to produce pornography and even snuff, Jackson portentously announces: "this is the future of smut!"

    This puts Ripper Street very much in line with the quasi-Steampunkish attitude that has permeated 19th century-set film and television since at least Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes (and presumably also informs BBC America's companion series to Ripper Street, Copper, which takes place in 1860s New York, though I haven't seen any of that show), in which the familiar is dressed up in fancy outfits and photogenic grime.  Unsurprisingly, women in this story are exclusively wives (Amanda Hale, who was brilliant to the extent of stealing Romola Garai's spotlight in The Crimson Petal and the White, plays the so far thankless role of Reid's patient and supportive wife), whores (MyAnna Buring as a madam who is Jackson's business partner and obvious love interest, though she protests her hate for him in the pilot, and Charlene McKenna as a young prostitute who catches Drake's eye), and murder victims.  The men, meanwhile, get to kick ass and take names with even less regard for civil rights and due process than you'd see in a present-set cop show, and then walk away with their natty period greatcoats billowing.  There's room for a genuine look at the origins of policing in the 19th century, as well as the social issues in recently-industrialized London that would have made policing it such a challenge.  And there's room for shows like Deadwood, which fantasize the past, but with such poetry and breadth of vision that they use it to tell a universal, timeless story.  Ripper Street is neither of these things.  It's a surface show in which the look of things, whether period, as in the costumes and set dressing, or modern, as in the soundtrack and camerawork, are all that matters.

  • Banshee - Coming from the same home as this fall's Hunted (whose well-made first season devolved into silly conspiracy theories towards its end), Banshee sees a recently released convict (Antony Starr, whose character's real name we never find out) switching identities with the sheriff of the improbably named eponymous small Pennsylvania town when the latter is killed the day before he takes up his new job.  That's a tenuous enough premise as it is, but the show piles on top of it additional complications for our hero--he's arrived at Banshee on the trail of his former partner and lover (Ivana Milicevic), who has made her own fresh start, reinventing herself as a law-abiding wife and mother, potentially bringing the mobster from whom they stole $10M worth of diamonds to her doorstep--as well as introducing several tangled and idiosyncratic plotlines surrounding Banshee itself, including a college-age mayor, a creepy local mobster with his finger in every pie in town, tensions with both the local Indian tribe and the local Amish community (a prominent member of the latter is the father of the aforementioned, and now shunned, mobster), and a full sheriff's department including one member who is suspicious of our hero, another who is being set up as a blatant love interest for him, and a third who is, uh, black (other than this character, the only people of color on the show are a local bartender who is the only person who knows our hero's true identity, and a former criminal associate of his who directs him to Banshee and helps him cement his false identity, and who on top of being a hacker is a cross-dressing hairdresser, and while both characters are vividly drawn it is problematic that our white hero has not one but two non-white sidekicks who go to great lengths to help him for reasons that are at best flimsy).

    As might be imagined from this description, Banshee's pilot has a lot of table-setting to do, and if nothing else the fact that it manages to set all these plotlines up without feeling incredibly rushed and busy is impressive.  Like Hunted, the show's style stresses visuals and atmospherics over dialogue, with much of its affect and plotting achieved through wordless inferences, and though, as in Hunted, there is a sense that this represents the writers making a virtue out of necessity--when the characters do speak, the dialogue runs the gamut from forgettable to overbaked--a lot of the show's visuals, and particularly its action scenes, are impressively kinetic and well-made (though, as with the show's premise, often straining credulity--the cold open sees our hero pursued through the streets of Manhattan in a chase that ends up causing massive mayhem, including an overturned tourist bus, as well as bystander fatalities, and yet somehow doesn't result in his face being plastered on the evening news all over the country).  If you add that refreshing visual adventurousness to the show's impressively ambitious plotting (and subtract some points for the gleeful way in which the pilot showcases naked female bodies), you get a series that feels worth following at least for the sake of seeing whether all that ambition leads to triumph of collapse, and yet I find myself feeling strangely cold about Banshee.  In the end, for all the quirkiness the show piles on its characters and plotlines--and despite Starr doing a good job of mingling toughness and vulnerability, and of conveying barely-suppressed glee at his realization that he is getting away with his scam--Banshee's story feels too familiar, boiling down to a simple antihero lawman vs. charismatic villain template that we've seen many times before, and the pilot is too busy setting up its many plotlines to establish how the show itself might be different or better from all the iterations of this story that have come before it.  That doesn't mean Banshee won't be worth watching--if I weren't already following too many series I'd be tempted to keep going for a week or two and see how it shapes up--but it has failed to grab me on its first try.

  • Deception - Say what you will about J.J. Abrams--and I have said quite a lot in my time--but there is one point in his favor that I don't think he's given nearly enough credit for, and that is that he is, to date, the only television creator to work out how to use Victor Garber to the best of his abilities.  Garber's turn against type in Abrams's Alias as the heroine's dour, emotionally withdrawn and utterly lethal father should have been a starmaking performance, doing for him what Lost would go on to do for Terry O'Quinn, but instead it only made him a higher profile character actor.  Which might have been good enough, but every show to cast Garber since Alias went off the air has failed to capitalize on his ability to convey both suppressed menace and suppressed warmth, leaving him to play a string of unctuous, gabby elder statesman types with not a hint of edginess or danger to them.  Case in point: Deception, in which Garber plays the patriarch of a wealthy New York family whose eldest daughter Vivian dies, apparently of an overdose, in the pilot's opening minutes.  Vivian's former best friend Joanna (Meagan Good), whose mother worked for the family and who is now a cop, believes that there's more to her death, and insinuates herself into the family in order to find out the truth.

    This is but the latest in a stream of shows about the dark secrets of the rich and famous, the most successful example of which is Revenge, which Deception is clearly trying to ape, but the show that Deception most reminds me of is the unfortunately titled and short-lived Dirty Sexy Money.  Both shows center around an everyperson protagonist who becomes the hanger-on of a rich, self-involved clan in order to suss out the truth about a mysterious death (in DSM, the hero's father, who held the job of consigliere and fixer before him), and both field a similar array of types--the ice-queen matron, the seemingly genial patriarch who will do anything to get his own way, the sardonic, self-loathing older son who has made it his business to protect the family from what he believes is the protagonist's parasitism, the child who has been in love with the protagonist since they were young, the party girl.  Deception does little to complicate these types or make them seem in any way human, even as they cope with the terrible tragedy of Vivian's death, and this begins with Garber, whom the pilot depicts as a fond teddy bear.  No doubt later episodes will reveal that he has a ruthless streak, but the reason that I have no doubt about this is that I know how this kind of story is supposed to go, not that Deception's pilot has done any of the work that would suggest that there is more to Garber's character--or to any of the characters--than meets the eye.  Deception wins some points for having a black heroine who is motivated by her friendship with another woman, but unlike Revenge it lacks the hook of an escalating and increasingly convoluted scheme of vengeance (which anyway has yielded diminishing returns on Revenge, whose second season has bogged down as it throws increasingly implausible obstacles in the heroine's path), and absent that, it's harder not to notice what obvious types all of the characters are, and how little tension or urgency there is to the show's central mystery.

5 comments:

Jodie said...

Ripper Street - ugh. Thought the BBC had to be conservative with their cash at the mo and they turn out this? The lowest point (besides all the dialogue) was that charming shot where the dead prostitute's vag was modestly covered by the downturned head of the policeman examining her naked body.

Alison said...

I like Ripper Street. It's obviously heavily influenced by Deadwood, and as you say it is only a weak imitation of it. However, I think it is above the standard of most BBC dramas, which tend to underestimate the audience. Not as good as The Hour, but miles ahead of (say) New Tricks or the like. It might be comparable to Luther, which is also flawed of course.

I think that the female perspective is becoming somewhat stronger as the series progresses. The 'wife' is running a covert home for battered women for example. We don't see much of her story, but at least we have some idea that her story is going on in parallel, and that women in general are fighting the status quo in the background. Not enough but better than someone might gather from seeing just the first episode.

Similarly I think there is some attempt to put the violence and exploitation and prostitution into an ethical context. I'm not saying it's deep, for sure, but there is a lot of ground between a show which gloats over women as throw-away sex victims, and a show which fully represents the female experience. Ripper Street is clearly not the second, but I think it is less like the former - less of a torture-porn playground - than the first episode might have suggested.

Alison said...

I like Ripper Street. It's obviously heavily influenced by Deadwood, and as you say it is only a weak imitation of it. However, I think it is above the standard of most BBC dramas, which tend to underestimate the audience. Not as good as The Hour, but miles ahead of (say) New Tricks or the like. It might be comparable to Luther, which is also flawed of course.

I think that the female perspective is becoming somewhat stronger as the series progresses. The 'wife' is running a covert home for battered women for example. We don't see much of her story, but at least we have some idea that her story is going on in parallel, and that women in general are fighting the status quo in the background. Not enough but better than someone might gather from seeing just the first episode.

Similarly I think there is some attempt to put the violence and exploitation and prostitution into an ethical context. I'm not saying it's deep, for sure, but there is a lot of ground between a show which gloats over women as throw-away sex victims, and a show which fully represents the female experience. Ripper Street is clearly not the second, but I think it is less like the former - less of a torture-porn playground - than the first episode might have suggested.

Dan H said...

My partner and I are having a really ambivalent relationship with /Ripper Street/. We've kind of come to the conclusion that we like everything about the show except for the show itself.

It's very well designed, well shot, and well performed, but the actual plots are just overpoweringly stupid. Episode three particularly stood out for me, I think because the plot seemed to be a mashup of two real-life *medical* mysteries which I remembered hearing dramatised on Radio 4 about a year ago - one to do with a Cholera outbreak, the other to do with the contamination of a batch of bread.

I suspect that a big part of the problem is that a modern police procedural, in a nineteenth-century setting, just doesn't fit and as a result the whole crime and the investigation of it feels completely outlandish.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think that for those two elements to fit the show needs to be a lot less serious about itself. A more tongue-in-cheek effort - something consciously shlocky like Quentin Tarantino's recent efforts, or those deliberately B-grade fantasy adventure films where medieval characters fire machine guns (I'm thinking specifically of the recent Hansel and Gretel: Witch-Hunters), could have been enjoyably daffy. But Ripper Street is so convinced of its seriousness that it fails to notice how ridiculous its own premise is.

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