Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2011 Edition, Part 2
Happy 5772, everyone! Let us ring in the new year with more reviews of fall TV pilots! The second week of the new season has been a bit quieter than the first, with fewer shows that I found something to write about (not listed here are Charlie's Angels, which is atrocious but not even hilariously so, Prime Suspect, which is nicely done but rather pointless given the existence of the original, and Suburgatory, which is cute but probably not my thing, plus I can't get over how much the lead has been made to look like Emma Stone). From here on in it's a slow trickle of new shows all the way into November, a few of which sound promising, but I think it's telling that even those shows that I've liked this year, such as Revenge and Pan Am and Terra Nova below, have fallen into the trashy fun category, not the smart and thought-provoking one. No one, so far, seems to be making that kind of show this year.
- Pan Am - I didn't say anything in my last write-up about The Playboy Club because there's really not much to add to the near-unanimous round of denunciations the show has received (I'm particularly fond of this review, which not only lays into the show for its failures of plot and character, but gives the floor to an actual former Playboy Bunny who castigates it for historical inaccuracy). Pan Am shares a lot of similarities with The Playboy Club. Both shows are clearly attempts to cash in on the 60s craze inspired by Mad Men, both have identified sexual politics and the sexual revolution as the key ingredient in the AMC show's appeal which they can repackage and market to a broader audience, and both have chosen to focus on a female-only profession that emerged in that era and was, in a large part, about selling beauty and hospitality, while arguing that this profession was also empowering and liberating. Aside from the fact that the Playboy Club pilot is shlocky and overdone while Pan Am's is sharp and, despite most of its action taking place aboard a single intercontinental flight, effortlessly engaging, the key difference between the shows is that Pan Am gets that it needs to work hard to make its central argument (meanwhile, The Playboy Club settles for having Hugh Hefner tell us that Playboy bunnies were "the only women who could do anything and be anyone they wanted").
To this end Pan Am fields several characters who come to stewarding for different reasons--Christina Ricci's seasoned purser is an East Village bohemian who wants to see the world, while newbie Margot Robbie has run away from her parents and fiancé--and does a good job of building these characters into something more than stereotypes. It also highlights some of the darker aspects of the profession--the stewardesses are introduced to us being weighed before their flight, and Karin Vanasse is affecting as her character is first thrilled to see a passenger with whom she'd enjoyed a tryst in Rome, then crushed when he turns out to be flying with his wife and son. Meanwhile, the most intriguing character is Kelli Garner's, whose Kate has been recruited by the CIA, in a plot point that could lead to some interesting stories, and build on the notion of women venturing into previously unexplored professional territory, without straining credulity. It's true that, especially in its final minutes, the pilot leans too heavily into the notion that being a stewardess in the 60s was not only a feminist act but somehow embodied and perhaps even encapsulated feminism, and this is perhaps a worrying sign of things to come (especially as the final shot is of the four main characters, done up to the nines and striding into their plane as if they'd just walked out of a circa-1962 Pan Am ad, while an awe-struck little girl looks on). And it's also true, and equally worrying, that though the pilot does a good job of establishing the tone of its period setting and introducing its characters, it does little to convincingly argue that you can tell interesting stories about the lives of Pan Am stewardesses week in and out. Still, there's enough verve here, and the characters are interesting enough in themselves, that I'm willing to give the show a few more weeks to prove itself.
- A Gifted Man and Hart of Dixie - At first glance, these two shows, both about hotshot New York surgeons who learn a lesson in humility when life throws them a curveball and forces them to connect emotionally with their patients, seem like another example of how two networks will take the same concept and do it very well or very badly, as we've already seen this season with Ringer and Revenge, The Playboy Club and Pan Am. But the truth is that though Hart of Dixie is terrible and A Gifted Man is very well done, neither one of them can escape the pernicious, infuriating message at their core. In Hart, Rachel Bilson is a young surgeon bucking for a cardiothoracic fellowship when she's informed by the chief of surgery that she is too cold and uncaring towards her patients and needs to develop her people skills by working as a GP. The show somehow tops this for implausibility when Bilson chooses to serve out her sentence as a small-town doctor in Alabama. The Southern clichés come in hot and heavy, and by the end of the predictable, unfunny pilot Bilson has thawed towards the town's charms (or perhaps the charms of designated love interest Scott Porter) and decides to stay where she can "do some good." A Gifted Man looks a lot more respectable than this, but its premise is, if anything, even sillier. Neurosurgeon Patrick Wilson is career-driven and at the top of his game when he's visited by the ghost of his do-gooder, free clinic doctor ex-wife (Jennifer Ehle) who encourages him to open his heart and, coincidentally, his practice to the deserving poor. Besides the high production values, the pilot's greatest asset is its two leads. Ehle classes up a character who is, on paper, a rather dispiriting proposition, a woman who quite literally has nothing to live for except enabling the self-improvement of her love interest, and Wilson does a lot more than the script to sow ambivalence into the notion that his character needs to be cured of his arrogance and ambition--the pleasure he takes in his achievements, and his keen intelligence, are palpable in his performance.
But well made or cliché-ridden, both shows are ultimately devoted to arguing that there is something wrong with trying to be the best at your job, and that for a doctor, it's more important to connect with your patients than to be a good surgeon. It's a sappy, anti-intellectual moral that prioritizes niceness over competence, and vilifies the choice to prioritize professional achievements--even if those achievements help you save lives--over personal happiness. In A Gifted Man in particular, there's a rather disquieting undertone to the show's argument that Wilson's choice to advance his career instead of working with his wife was an immoral one--as it does when it signposts the beginning of his transformation by having him perform surgery on one of her patients pro bono--which seems to suggest that if the poor don't have access to top notch medical care, that's the fault of greedy, ambitious doctors, not a state that won't provide them, and the doctors, with an adequate health care system. That same attitude also extends to both shows' valorization of general practice over specialized surgery--as if cardiothoracic surgery was a big city affectation instead of a life-saving specialty--even though for either character to opt for general practice over surgery (as Wilson's character chose--wrongly, it is implied--not to do when he left his wife, and as Bilson is clearly on track for) would be a tremendous waste of their training and talent, one that might even cost lives.
- Terra Nova - This is the second Spielberg-produced science fiction series to premiere in 2011, the first being the summer series Falling Skies. I never wrote anything about Skies while it was airing even though I watched and enjoyed the whole season, because there didn't seem to be much to say--it was a solidly entertaining grade B science fiction series that didn't really reward closer inspection. I expected Terra Nova to be cut from the same cloth, but I hadn't expected the similarities to be quite so blatant. Despite very different premises--Skies posits a cataclysmic alien invasion; Terra Nova starts in an ecologically ravaged 2149 and follows its characters back in time as they try to reboot humanity 85 million years in the past--the beats of the two series are quite similar. Both focus on male protagonist who is determined to do anything to protect his family (Jason O'Mara), and who clashes with his teenage son (Landon Liboiron). In both, the male lead is both the loyal right hand and the occasional foil of a tough-as-nails leader (Stephen Lang) who harbors some dark secrets and is also the series's best-developed character. Both feature an older female character, the lead's love interest, who is a kind, nurturing doctor (Shelley Conn) and an action chick (Allison Miller, almost unrecognizable as princess Michelle from Kings and very good as a level-headed young woman with obvious leadership skills) who is positioned as the son's love interest.
Falling Skies's greatest asset was that its lead was played by Noah Wyle, who imbued his character with a complexity and intelligence that the rest of the show lacked. Unfortunately for Terra Nova, O'Mara isn't up to Wyle's level, and the script treats him rather poorly--in the first half of the pilot his character, a former cop turned prisoner who stowed away so he could join his emigrating family, is subjected to a lot of unfunny scenes in which he grimaces through agricultural duty even though he'd really rather join the security detail. These are presumably meant to show that his talents are being wasted, the better for him to show those talents off at an opportune moment, but actually they just make him seem whiny and out of step, since agricultural work is presumably very important in a fledgling colony and there's probably more work to be done than hands to do it. It's a good thing, then, that Terra Nova's world is so interesting, by which I mean not the mysterious schism between the colonists and a breakaway group who may have been sent from the future to destabilize the last hope of humanity, or the dark hints that Lang's missing, mad son is wandering the jungle in possession of arcane and potentially dangerous knowledge, but the very idea of colonizing our own world, and the way that Terra Nova visualizes it. The pilot is energetic and does a good job of conveying the strangeness and newness of this ancient Earth, and there are, of course, several exciting scenes involving dinosaurs, which is the sort of thing that might pale in time but for now is a lot of fun. I'm less enthusiastic, as I said, about the various mysteries teased in the pilot, and even less so about the show's choice to filter its stories through the experiences of a single family and its, frankly not very interesting or well done, squabbles and difficulties, but right now the sense I'm getting from Terra Nova is that it, too, can be solidly entertaining grade B fare, but with dinosaurs. That would not be a bad thing in my book.