Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2017 Edition

I've been doing these fall TV reviews for more than a decade, and every year they feel less relevant, as either a guide to shows that people might like to watch or a commentary on the state of TV.  It's not that I believe that network TV is no longer capable of producing worthwhile, exciting fare--after all, my favorite show currently airing, whose second season is somehow managing to top even its stellar first one, is a network sitcom.  But pretty much everything the networks have trotted out this fall, good and bad, has felt inessential, like retreads of old ideas and trends that aren't really worth taking the time to talk about.  My focus in this post, then, is on the one thing that makes this fall unusual--the fact that in the space of a month, we've seen the premieres of four different SF shows.  Not all of them are good, but their subject matter means that all of them are sufficiently far from the standard network template that I can find something to say about them.
  • The Orville - By now you've probably heard that Seth MacFarlane's new space-set show is not, as you might expect from its description, appearance, and MacFarlane's involvement, a parody of Star Trek, but an hour-long adventure show that is entirely earnest in its use of Star Trek's tropes and conventions.  This, however, doesn't even come close to capturing the strangeness, and the awkwardness, of what MacFarlane has produced with The Orville.  Watching it feels like what I imagine it would be like if you could follow along and watch--but never participate--in someone else's not-very-sophisticated but extremely well-funded Star Trek LARP.  As a television show, The Orville is bad--the storytelling is slow and dull, the dialogue is stilted and full of infodumps (which none of the actors know how to deliver), the characters are barely there--but one feels almost embarrassed to point this out, as if by doing so you're interrupting someone else's fun.  In all my years of watching way too much TV, I have never encountered a show that gave off so pronounced an impression of being completely uninterested in me or any other member of the audience, of existing solely so that its creator--MacFarlane, as Ed Mercer, the newly-minted captain of the titular ship--could cosplay in his favorite fictional universe.

    As a Star Trek fan myself, this is an impulse that I might be expected to sympathize with.  But one of the very first things The Orville reveals, once you get past the strangeness of its project, is how shallow MacFarlane's take on Star Trek actually is.  Oh, the look is all there--the costumes, cityscapes, and spaceships all look exactly like what you'd get if you took the aesthetic of The Next Generation and updated it to keep up with 2017 fashions and production values--and the terms are all easily recognizable--instead of the Federation you've got the Union; instead of Klingons you've got a species whose name I didn't even bother to learn, but who cares, they're Klingons.  And in interviews, MacFarlane has spoken about his desire to return to the "optimistic" type of space exploration stories that Star Trek specialized in.  But the actual stories showing up on screen contain none of the depth or wit that made Star Trek actually good, and the prevailing emotion in the show is less optimism than blandness.  Star Trek has a reputation for being sterile, for ignoring the real messiness of human life and relationships in its zeal to depict a future in which so many (but by no means all) of the sources of human misery had been eliminated.  Leaving aside for a moment whether that's an accurate perception, The Orville's solution to this alleged problem only reveals what a depth of emotion there was in the series it takes off from, and how insufficient MacFarlane's "modernized" take on it is.  The characters on The Orville aren't messy and human; they're shallow and immature.  And not even in fun ways--if the show were more strongly comedic, it might be possible to forgive the fact that its characterization comes down to having the cast speak in 21st century slang and make ever-so-slightly risque jokes.  But given its earnest tone, the thinness of its stories and character arcs is simply unforgivable.

    Instead of relying on humor, The Orville cadges storylines from both its obvious inspiration and real life--the second episode borrows from several top-notch Star Trek episodes when it reveals the existence of an alien zoo where sentient species are kept as displays; the third episode revolves around a female baby born to an all-male species, whose parents want to give her gender reassignment surgery.  But the handling of these ideas is invariably shallow, dull, and terrified of controversy--in the third episode, MacFarlane and his writers somehow manage to go a whole hour without ever mentioning the existence of intersex humans, much less suggesting that in The Orville's idealized future, such people might be considered unremarkable.  A similar shallowness afflicts the characters' relationships, the most important one of which is between Ed and his ex-wife, Kelly (Adrianne Palicki, who deserves so much better than this), who cheated on him and is now trying to make amends by helping to put his career, derailed by their divorce, back on track by serving as his second-in-command.  It's tempting to roll your eyes at such a hoary premise, but it might have been better if The Orville were wall-to-wall ex-wife jokes.  Instead, it plays the relationship between Ed and Kelly mostly straight, and in so doing draws attention to the fact that neither one of them behaves like anything resembling a human being, much less one wracked by the kind of deep feelings you'd expect the breakdown of a marriage following infidelity to arouse.  There's the slightest uptick in drama in the third episode, when we witness the conflict between the alien parents who disagree over whether to "conform" their female child, but still not at the level of getting us to care about these people, one of whom is a series regular.  I can almost sympathize with MacFarlane's desire to have another show like Star Trek on the air, but he's so bad at making a version of Star Trek that realizes why that show was special that he might as well not have bothered.

  • Star Trek: Discovery - An additional reason to resent the existence of The Orville is that it has exposed a surprisingly wide seam in Star Trek fandom who, like MacFarlane, seem to think that Star Trek's appeal begins and ends with nostalgia.  These are the people who tend to slag off the most recent addition to the actual Star Trek canon, Discovery, while claiming that The Orville represents "real" Star Trek.  Which is probably making me a lot more partial to Discovery than the show currently deserves.  Taken on its own merits, Discovery is a frustrating but fascinating mix of good and bad, Trek and not-Trek.  But what I appreciate about it is that, even in its worst moments, there is a palpable sense that the people creating it are trying to move Star Trek forward, both as an idea and a work of television.  Not everything they're doing works, and given how withholding the show's storytelling is, even four episodes in, it'll probably take me until the end of the season to decide where I come down on it.  But the idea that it is necessary to grow and change in order to keep telling a story about the infinite possibilities of the future is the most quintessentially Star Trek thing imaginable, so in that sense at least, Discovery is on the right track.

    Perhaps the most disorienting--and at the moment, un-Star Trek-like--thing about Discovery is that it's the story of a person, not a ship or a place.  Heroine Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) quickly goes from rising star in the Starfleet ranks to mutineer to a press-ganged crewmember on the titular ship, whose captain, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) is conducting a mysterious and probably ill-fated experiment in new propulsion systems, and whose ship is filled with secrets and mysteries.  It's not how Star Trek is supposed to work--the ship is always supposed to be home; the crew, even if they disagree, are always supposed to be allies--and, especially for fans traumatized by the recent movies' tendency to throw every idea and principle that made Star Trek what it was out the window in service of a generic action plot and an unearned hero narrative, it's a worrying decision.  What keeps me feeling hopeful about Discovery is mainly Michael herself, who is a wonderful blend of intellect and temper, calm reasoning and self-destructive urges.  The badass/fuckup combination that failed so catastrophically with NuKirk works wonderfully here, mainly because the writing and the performance combine to create the impression that Michael is always thinking, always questioning, genuinely curious about her surroundings and genuinely thoughtful in her choices--even the bad ones.  If she's not quite the Hornblower-esque figure that the original Kirk was, she's a fascinating modern variation on it--not least for being a black woman.

    The rest of the Discovery crew are still being revealed, but there's a similar complexity to some of the ones we've already met.  Commander Saru (Doug Jones), a member of an alien race who are congenitally fearful and pessimistic, but who is also decent and kind; Lieutenant Stamets (Anthony Rapp), a scientist who is caught between elation and disgust that the military are fast-tracking his project; Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman), Michael's roommate who appears to have some sort of anxiety disorder, but who is also ambitious, and willing to learn even from an unlikely source like Michael.  They all feel like people with their own points of view, and more importantly for a Star Trek context, like people who are used to looking at the universe like a puzzle, not an obstacle course.  There are other aspects of the show that feel more conventional, more like the action-adventure direction that the movies took--Lorca and the suggestion that he's a villain; his mean-tempered chief of security Commander Landry (Rekha Sharma); most of all, the show's take on the Klingons, who have so much less personality and individuality than they did in The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager.  As I've said, I probably won't know how I feel about Discovery until at least the end of the first season.  But what I do know is that there isn't another character like Michael Burnham on TV right now, nor another story that gives her the opportunity to be a badass, a scientist, and a political thinker.  That, to me, feels like Star Trek.

  • The Gifted - Fox's second X-Men series is a great deal less trippy and surreal than Legion, but has essentially the same premise--mutants fleeing for their lives and freedom from sinister government agencies.  The more conventional style and structure allows The Gifted to be more political, though I'm reserving judgment on how successfully.  In a world where draconian laws allow the government to detain and intern mutants, a middle class couple discover that their children have abilities, and go on the run, teaming up with the mutant underground.  The twist is that the family's father, Reed Strucker (Stephen Moyer) is a lawyer for the government whose job is to criminalize and prosecute mutants.  In fairness, The Gifted seems aware of the inherent problems of focusing its story about oppression on a former oppressor, who only realizes his actions were wrong when they affect his own family.  Already in the first episode there is evidence of subtle criticism of Reed and his wife Kate (Amy Acker, once again being unimaginatively asked to play weepy and overwhelmed), who are the kind of people who pride themselves on being decent and law-abiding, but who, when push comes to shove, genuinely don't seem to believe that the laws should apply to them.  An early scene sees Reed demand severe treatment of students who have bullied his son by, ironically enough, bullying one of his teachers, and when the scary Sentinel Services come to take away the Strucker children after an incident at their school, Kate, who had previously told Reed that he is "keeping us safe" from mutants, flatly denies that the government has any right to take her kids.

    It's still possible that The Gifted means for us to see this behavior as uncomplicatedly heroic, and not to notice the Struckers' privileged habits of thought (though the second episode sees Kate being confronted with the fact that she didn't care about how badly mutants were being mistreated until she realized her children were mutants).  But an additional way in which the show addresses its potential problems is by not focusing exclusively on Reed and Kate.  Equal time is given to the Strucker children, Lauren and Andy (Natalie Alyn Lind and Percy Hynes White), who have a nice big sister-little brother rapport, and who clearly don't entirely trust their parents--one of the best scenes in the pilot comes when Lauren reveals that she's been hiding her mutant abilities for three years because she didn't know how Reed and Kate would react.  The mutant underground are also given their own storyline, and though I could wish that the show were told more strongly from their point of view (not least because the underground is a great deal more diverse than the lily-white Strucker family), it doesn't treat them as a means to Reed's ends, nor as helpless victims who need him to save them.  A lot depends on how The Gifted will develop its story going forward--there's a lot of potential for the show to be a story about a racist who Learns Better, and by this point we should all be able to look around and see that it doesn't work that way.  But if the show continues to challenge Reed and Kate on their privilege, and to develop the storylines of the kids and the other mutants, it might end up having something interesting to say about its extremely familiar premise.

  • Marvel's Inhumans - There's probably nothing I can say at this stage that will add to the torrent of scorn that has rained down on Marvel TV's latest effort.  The only thing I can say is that it's all deserved.  Inhumans is a genuinely awful show: poorly written, indifferently acted, and with almost no characters that anyone could care about or be interested in.  What I will say is that I was a little surprised by this failure.  Scott Buck's last tour of duty with Marvel, Iron Fist, was pretty bad in its own right (though, amazingly, still better than Inhumans), but the one thing it got right was the twisted 1% family drama of the Meachums, Danny Rand's business partners.  Given that the one thing I kept hearing about the Inhumans was that they were a superpowered Dynasty, Buck seemed like the perfect fit.  And yet for some reason, he seems to have misplaced the instincts he had for that kind of soap opera storytelling when it came time to write Inhumans, trying to sell the show as a straightforward story of good versus evil, even as the actual characters and premise he presents completely fail to earn those designations.

    Inhumans is set in the secret city of Attilan on the Moon, where the part-alien title characters live in a society governed by a rigid caste system.  At puberty, young Inhumans are exposed to Terrigen Mist, which either transforms them and gives them powers, or leaves them human.  The latter group are then sent to toil in the mines, while the former live like kings--literally, as our heroes Black Bolt and Medusa (Anson Mount and Serinda Swan) rule over Attilan along with the rest of the royal family.  The obvious perversity of this arrangement is recognized only by Black Bolt's brother, Maximus (Iwan Rheon), who orchestrates a palace coup and gains the people's support by promising them new living space on Earth.  In other words, at the very least Inhumans should be a twisty tale of intrigue and double-crosses where no one is purely good or bad (though frankly, the only reason not to be completely on Maximus's side is that he keeps killing people who get in his way).  Instead, the show presents Black Bolt, Medusa, and their supporters as completely in the right, and Maximus's actions as completely evil, and leaves no space for the kind of political machinations its premise clearly demands.

    Of the cast, only Rheon and Swan seem to realize that they should be playing entitled, arrogant aristocrats, whose appeal comes not from being likable but from total self-possession.  Even they, however, can't do much with the story or characters they've been given.  The show fares much worse with Black Bolt, who can't speak because his voice has terrible concussive properties.  Seemingly no thought has been given to how to convey the personality of a completely silent character, and so Maximus's accusation that Black Bolt is passive and unwilling to plan for the future end up carrying a lot of weight, further cementing the feeling that neither he nor his family deserve to win this particular game of thrones.  One imagines that, like The Gifted, the arc of this story will be for the "good" Inhuman characters to take the opportunity of having been humbled in order to Learn Better and then remake Inhuman society into a more equal place.  But, even if the execution so far were not so very bad, that feels like a waste of a good premise.  There's nothing wrong with a twisty soap opera, and the world of Marvel is obviously a rich setting for one.  Not everything needs to be about heroes and villains.

15 comments:

Adam Roberts said...

Looks like you can factor mean-tempered chief of security Commander Landry out of your assessment of the show.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

That's what I thought, but IMDB has Rekha Sharma listed as appearing in 11 episodes. And either way, the fact that her attitudes have no corrective except (possibly) poetic justice is worrying. A Starfleet officer shouldn't be calling prisoners "trash" and "animals", and I don't get the sense that this is meant to be purely Landry's problem.

Chris said...

Regarding Discovery, I'm actually quite liking that the Klingons are, well, alien. I'm also keeping in my mind that this is still early days Federation. And I don't think Michael Burnham's journey would be so interesting if she was surrounded by people who were better than her and that she was simply trying to decide if she was capable of redemption. Every paradise needs a serpent or two. Especially if it's not paradise but Section 31's flagship.

As for Landry, let me tell you something about humans. They're a wonderful, friendly people – as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working. But take away their creature comforts... deprive them of food, sleep, sonic showers... put their lives in jeopardy over an extended period of time... and those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people will become as nasty and violent as the most bloodthirsty Klingon. You don't believe me? Look at those faces, look at their eyes...

Retlawyen said...

I think you are right on about Marvel's Inhumans. The idea that we should be rooting for anybody called 'The Genetic Council', who keep folks in mines on the moon, seems insane. But that is very clearly what they are going for. I dunno.

The Gifted, in my opinion, slams straight into the 'Mutants are Oppressed People and also way more powerful than the cops" issue that you've brought up before. I dunno why people keep going to that well.

I actually like The Orville, while also agreeing with you that it feels kind of like Star Trek fanfic. I guess I should confess that I also like Star Trek fanfic. Just so freeing not to have to think through 20 years of canon every time an episode does anything exciting.

I wish Discovery wasn't a prequel. What is it with Trek and not moving the story along? That aside, it is definitely interesting to see Burnham's journey through the seedier side of the nascent Federation. Fingers crossed this one finds its stride and knocks the season out of the park.

gareth-wilson said...

I'd be more impressed with the Star Trek people's embrace of growth and change if they'd set this series after Voyager. It's been 15 years since the Nemesis movie, and since then no-one's shown any interest in what happens next.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Chris:

The thing that keeps me from accepting that take on Landry's behavior is that it's not the interpretation offered by the show. No one is saying "the war is taking its toll and making people cruel to those with the least power" (not to mention that the war only started six months ago so that's not much of an excuse). Landry's behavior is presented completely without comment, as if we're not meant to find it weird that a Federation officer treats prisoners as if they were subhuman.

Retlawyen:

I think The Gifted avoids at least some of the obvious problems with the mutant metaphor by focusing on very concrete problems. The second episode, for example, has Eclipse explain to Kate that mutants can't get health insurance because their mutation is a "pre-existing condition", and that this is causing hospital closures in places that still accept them. It's also where the show's focus on Reed and Kate works in its favor, because they get to make the argument of "it's not the same as racism because some mutants really are dangerous", which then allows the show to demonstrate how insufficient that is as a reason for tolerating the curtailment of human rights. Again, in the second episode, we see a flashback in which the family witnesses a mutant girl being goaded into losing control of her powers, which could end up with her being arrested while the people harassing her face no consequences.

Gareth:

I didn't love the idea of yet another prequel story, but I think Discovery is handling it better than I expected. Some aspects of it aren't working, particularly the look of the show (Genevieve Valentine has thrown up her hands in disgust at the idea that Starfleet will go from the uniforms on Discovery to the ones on TOS in ten years, and I can't blame her). But the idea that this is still a Federation that is figuring itself out works on at least some levels. That said, I definitely think this should be the last prequel. I don't know if the plan is still to do an anthology show as Bryan Fuller originally planned, but if it is then maybe the next season (if there is one) will be post-Voyager.

gareth-wilson said...

I think the anthology show idea died when Fuller left - it's a very tough sell in modern TV, even with the success of American Horror Story. The tie-in books apparently try to explain the difference between the costumes. I prefer to think there's been a bloody revolution between this and the original series, and the revolutionaries make everyone wear variations on Michael's prison outfit.

mangozoid said...

I must say that I rather like The Orville's take on Star Trek - it's still yet to make its mind up whether it's parody or pastiche, but nonetheless I've enjoyed what I've seen so far. It's wafer-thin and throwaway entertainment at best, perhaps, but that in itself is no reason to knock it -- this is a valid form of escapism for some people, and I like wasting an hour or so without having to try hard to keep up! :-D

Brigonos said...

I was terribly disappointed with both Orville and Discovery - I was promised car-crash tv and instead I got two half-decent Trek clones I enjoy.

I can't say I like Burnham much as a character. There's too much of NuSpock there, but mostly I just find her redemptive arc boring.

zahrawithaz said...

Well, you've convinced me to grudgingly give STD another try. I'm really torn on this one, because the central actress is so good, and there are glimmers of an interesting show there.

But I am a big believer that Star Trek at its best was defined by tension between ideals and a darker sense of reality (even at its most utopian, where our world is the implied dystopia). And I'm having trouble stomaching the over-the-top grimdark tone, which feels cloned from too many sf shows to count.

It's especially hard because I strongly believe there's a correlation between shows that exult in the violation of traditional US civil rights and the normalizing of that violation. And so the attitude to prisoners (both in how they're treated, and how all except Burnham act) galls me even more than the up-to-no-good captain, who bores me to physical pain.

It's possible that given how arc-driven the show is, that those two elements will come back into balance, but introducing those principles through the 1st captain and then killing them (& her) off left a very sour taste in my mouth. I also realistically have a lot of trouble with shows that value a protagonist over an ensemble. But my overall sense is if this is where they're bringing Star Trek, I wish the Orville were better.

zahrawithaz said...

I fully expect the Gifted to take a nosedive at some point, but I am enjoying it for its excellent pacing, some good performances, and exactly the quality you raise--the fact that they've made the central family's privilege a running theme and source of commentary.

In US culture, X-men stories have always been about projecting black and gay experiences onto white straight people--fantastic racism at its worst. (It's no coincidence that the two characters who have the experiences most parallel to LGBT people, in terms of hiding their difference from or being rejected for it by their families of origin, Lauren & Eclipse, are characters given different-sex love interests in literally their 1st scenes.) At least this adds something interesting to the template.

And the show is definitely using racial coding to differentiate the Struckers from the Mutant Underground, where of the 4 characters we care about, two are visibly people of color and the 3rd is Spanish-speaking. (The rest fall mostly into that weird X-men "visibly mutant" category.)

But no mutants the audience cares about are black, and in the first two episodes, there are at least 6 minor black characters, all of whom are presented as antagonistic, untrustworthy, or outright villainous, often with a flavor of "unjust authority figures." (Your interpretation of the principal is interesting, and may be plausible, but that is not the case for the traitorous colleague, ruthless Sentinel Services agent, prison gang leader, etc etc.) And given our particular moment of US history, I find that chilling.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Given how slowly Discovery is building its cast, it seems reasonable to me that it's doing the same with its storytelling and ideas. But that's only a reason to keep going with the show if you're otherwise intrigued by it, as I am. The fact that at the moment it's so opaque about its direction, and about the kind of story it's trying to be, isn't exactly a recommendation. As I said, I'm going to stick it out until the end of the season, and I do like Michael a lot, but I really don't know how I feel about it right now.

Good point about the use of blackness in The Gifted - I was particularly struck by the scene in which Polaris is beaten in prison by a black gang leader. I'd like to believe that it's deliberate - a commentary on the way that different oppressed groups can still oppress one another, or even a subtle rejection of the mutant metaphor (the black prisoner feels no solidarity with mutants, and would probably be outraged at the idea that they are a stand-in for her troubles). But I suspect it's more along the lines of the kind of thoughtlessness you get from the casting on Firefly or Agents of SHIELD, where there's an awareness that they should cast black actors, but somehow they just keep being shunted into villain roles.

John Casey said...

"I didn't love the idea of yet another prequel story, but I think Discovery is handling it better than I expected. Some aspects of it aren't working, particularly the look of the show (Genevieve Valentine has thrown up her hands in disgust at the idea that Starfleet will go from the uniforms on Discovery to the ones on TOS in ten years, and I can't blame her). But the idea that this is still a Federation that is figuring itself out works on at least some levels. That said, I definitely think this should be the last prequel. I don't know if the plan is still to do an anthology show as Bryan Fuller originally planned, but if it is then maybe the next season (if there is one) will be post-Voyager."

There were plans for a web cartoon called Final Frontier (http://www.startrekff.com) Someone sets off "omega bombs" and disrupts subspace travel. There's a war with the Romulans, the Andorian home planet is destroyed, and Vulcan leaves the Federation to re-unify with Romulas. The Federation is now a paranoid totalitarian government trying to fortify its territory, and apparently there's a conspiracy afoot. Captain Generic White Guy commands the Enterprise, which is now a brick. He dreams of the old days, and abandons his post to "explore strange new worlds."

Standback said...

Now that we're past Discovery's mid-season finale, I mostly feel like it has no idea where it's going. Like it's trying to be intensely serialized, but also refusing to make the most minimal commitments to having a clear direction, or maintaining consistency.

Burnham's redemption arc has faded into the background; since Lathe, she's only being placed in action-adventure scenarios that don't lean on her character at all (and, oy, a new romantic relationship, because yes that's what we're missing here). And we get weird episodes like "Oh no, Saru's been taken over, but oh wait actually at the end of the episode we learn that he's been through a huge emotional experience that we just didn't know about," or "The Discovery triumphantly blows up the Ship of the Dead, except how much does that even matter when all the Klingons are interchangeable, and... and then we get this cliffhanger implying the series is continuing somewhere else? Was this all some sort of convoluted prologue?".

I'll be with the series through the end of the season, but I'm continually frustrated by how badly it flubs basic writing. :-/

Standback said...

I'm intrigued by Saru, because the idea of a person "living continually in fear" sounds like it could be really pertinent as touching on the experience of so many marginalized people, in a very SF-nal way. And it could be particularly successful as a sort of accompanying counterpoint to all the crew members who belong to currently-marginalized groups.

That might all be in my meta-headcanon, though. It doesn't seem like the writers have hinted much in that direction.

Post a Comment