Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2009 Edition, Part 2
In which things go from bad to worse. I realize, academically, that this year is probably no worse than any other, but it sure feels as if there's a lot more crap to wade through, and it's certainly not helping that there isn't a single show whose pilot has hooked me completely. Plus, the returning shows are extremely variable--Dexter and How I Met Your Mother have been very good, Dollhouse an extremely mixed bag, and House a profound disappointment. Oh well, let's take a look at the most recent batch.
- Accidentally On Purpose and Cougar Town - Two comedies about an older woman/younger man pairing. In Accidentally On Purpose, Billie (Jenna Elfman, sporting a heroically awful haircut) is a thirty seven year old film critic who, having despaired of her boyfriend committing to her, starts a fling with a twentyish man, which quickly leads to her becoming pregnant. Cougar Town's Jules (Courteney Cox, looking absolutely smoking after having more or less ditched the skeletal Monica look) is a fortysomething divorcée with a teenage son who, having despaired of finding an eligible man her age who isn't interested in college girls, discovers the joys of prowling for younger men. There are differences between the two shows, but both seem rooted in the assumption that what an independent, successful, mature woman needs is a boy, someone sweetly adoring and undemanding to whom she can be both lover and mother (Billie invites the father of her child to live with her after learning that he's been sleeping in his van; Jules offers her first conquest crackers with peanut butter, the same treat she makes for her son's friends) but whom she can also easily discard.
It's a premise that neither show seems particularly comfortable with--besides the pregnancy plot, it's strongly suggested that Billie and her lover are in love rather than just fooling around; Jules is subjected to several humiliations as she stalks her prey, including being discovered en flagrante by her son and ex-husband, and there are hints that her real love interest is her age-appropriate neighbor. It'll be interesting to see if either show has the courage to come out in favor of cougarish behavior, or whether both will ultimately find it inferior to domesticity. Or, at least, it would be interesting if either show were particularly good. Accidentally On Purpose is by far the worse. Aiming for a retro vibe by opting for the classic three-camera sitcom format, it mostly comes off as old-fashioned, with nary a decent joke to justify its laugh track and what few decent chuckles there are smothered by Elfman's overdone mugging and grinning. Cougar Town is slicker and better looking, and Cox is a strong performer and surrounded by a promising cast, including Christa Miller Lawrence playing essentially the same character she did in Scrubs, and child actor Dan Byrd who steals the show as Jules's son. But the jokes, perhaps intentionally, elicit cringes more often than laughs, and Jules's behavior--whether she's ranting at her skirt-chasing neighbor, flashing a thirteen-year old boy to prove to that neighbor that she's still got it, or making sex jokes with her clearly uncomfortable son--is appalling without there being any counteracting weight or sympathy to the character. As gifted as Cox is, she can't craft a person from this mass of horniness and insecurity, and the character transitions from funny and neurotic to manic and shrill before the half-hour pilot is finished.
- Eastwick - I might have lumped this show with the two comedies above, since it's also about women past the first flush of youth finding themselves, but though there is a May-December romance in the mix, Eastwick's scope is a little wider. Like the movie of which it is either a remake or a straight continuation, Eastwick centers around three women--bohemian sexpot Roxie, cowed wife and mother Kat, and repressed professional woman Joanna--whose magical powers are unleashed by the arrival of a mysterious stranger in the titular town, and which cause them to break out of their shells, strike up new friendships and relationships, and embrace new opportunities. Plus, the occasional smiting of a no-good husband. The three actresses commit to their roles with gusto, but there's not much more to these characters than my descriptions above, and Paul Gross as the handsome, seductive devil is fun in the same way that Jason Dohring was in Moonlight--he's evil and not very well written, but he's delivering essentially the same performance he gave in, respectively, Slings & Arrows and Veronica Mars.
For all that, Eastwick is a lot better than it has any right being. The pilot moves at a good clip, and its emotional climaxes--a townswoman being attacked by a swarm of ants as the three women discover their powers, Joanna cutting loose and telling off her sexist boss, the aforementioned smiting--are satisfying despite their obviousness. The problem is that we all know where this is going--Eastwick takes a good long while to tell the first act of a story whose third act we've either seen or heard about, which leads to baffling plotting and pacing decisions, such as ending the pilot with Joanna discovering that Gross's character isn't what he says he is, which of course we all knew. It's hard to imagine how a series could satisfyingly drag out the film's story over 13 or 22 hours, and neither the characters nor the writing promise to compensate for this predictability.
- The Good Wife - The final entry in this fall's slate of shows about fortyish women getting their own not only wins the category but is, thus far, the best pilot of the new TV season. The title character is Alicia (Julianna Margulies, good as ever), the wife of a state's attorney (Chris Noth, perfectly cast as a sleazy but charming liar) who becomes embroiled in a sex and corruption scandal. Her husband in prison and her house sold to pay for his lawyers' fees, Alicia returns, after an absence of thirteen years, to the legal profession as a junior associate in a classy Chicago law firm, and has to relearn the ropes of her profession while struggling to overcome her public humiliation and keep her family together. This is an extremely well-made show--the visuals are perfect, down to Alicia's conservative but expensive wardrobe and hairstyle, and the writing is sharp. Most importantly, however, this is a show that treats women seriously, without opting for either the magical empowerment of Eastwick or the jokey sex and relationships obsession of Accidentally On Purpose and Cougar Town.
The Good Wife is about the compromises women make, and about the way that those compromises both change and stay the same, to which end it presents a whole gallery of prominent female characters--Alicia, who abandoned her career to support her husband's and now finds herself with neither marriage nor career; her mother in law, who urges her to forgive her husband's peccadilloes; a senior partner at her firm, who makes a good show of supporting the sisterhood but may have a tendency to lash out at younger female associates whom she views as threats; the firm's investigator, whose brash confidence, as opposed to Alicia's muted insecurity, may represent a generation raised with stronger feminist expectations, or the simple fact that, at 25, this woman hasn't faced most of the dilemmas that Alicia has; Alicia's teenage daughter, whom she tries to protect from negative body images and her father's sex tapes. The Good Wife doesn't pass the Bechdel Test as quickly as one might expect from a show whose cast is dominated by women, which makes sense given that Alicia's life is at present driven by her husband's actions, but also points to the show's larger theme--this is a show about women who, especially because of their career ambitions, live in a man's world, and its focus is on the ways they negotiate it. My only real problem with The Good Wife is that I'm not a big fan of lawyer shows, so besides the fact that it's very well done there's really not much to hook me here. I'll give the show a few more episodes, but if it turns out to be a client of the week series I suspect that even the intriguing approach to women's issues won't be enough to keep me coming back.
- FlashForward - Possibly the most hotly anticipated genre series of the fall (especially now that the V remake may be dead on arrival), FlashForward, which is loosely based on the novel by Robert J. Sawyer, starts off with more of a whimper than a bang by coasting on its intriguing premise--at precisely the same moment, every human being on the planet loses consciousness for two minutes and seventeen seconds. When the scope of death and destruction begin to become appreciable (the pilot does a good job of conveying the multitude of horrors contained in this scenario--I was particularly affected by the people who drown because they fall face-down in a deep puddle--though the emphasis on photogenic explosions does nothing to dispel the impression that FlashForward is desperately angling for the position of Lost's successor, recalling--but by no means surpassing--as it does that series's iconic opening scene of the chaos following a plane crash), authorities turn their focus on the reports coming in that humanity didn't black out but flashed to a period six months in the future. The main appeal of FlashForward is the investigation of this central mystery, and given that the show is based on a novel there's at least a chance that the solution to this mystery a) exists, and b) doesn't suck. But when it comes to the characters who are going to carry out this investigation, the pilot is sadly lacking.
It's perhaps a given that to deliver as much story as FlashForward's pilot does one has to shortchange characters, especially with a cast as large as this series has, but if the closing credits are rolling and I haven't caught the names of half the characters then clearly something is not right. More distressingly, the show seems to be taking the Lost-ian tack of trying to achieve characterization through plot, so most of the main characters' arcs, as laid out in the pilot, have to do with their fear or hope that the images they saw in the flash forward will come true--the main character sees himself falling off the wagon; his wife sees herself in bed with another man; his colleague at the FBI sees that she is going to become pregnant, and his partner sees nothing, and worries that he may die in the next six months. The underlying assumption is that we'll be interested in seeing how the characters get from where they are today to where they are in the flash forward (the show pays lip service to the notion that one can change the future, but there's clearly no drama to be wrung out of a person who fears that he'll crawl back in the bottle and then doesn't), whether or not we care for the characters themselves, and the show thus does very little work investing us in, for example, the main characters' marriage before suggesting that it is threatened. The only flash forward that interested me was that of a character who sees his daughter, who was presumed to have died in Afghanistan, because that is an interesting plot hook regardless of who it happens to, but none of the other flash forwards have that kind of hook. I'm willing to give FlashForward the benefit of the doubt--to believe that it'll either foreground the investigation aspect of the story, or build up the characters enough that I care what happens to them and their relationships--but taken on its own, the pilot isn't at all promising.