- Do No Harm - I have no idea if this is true, but in my head the thought process that went into greenlighting Do No Harm went something like this: "hey, that other show loosely inspired by Stephen Moffat's 21st century modernization of a 19th century story that has entered the cultural currency, and which we turned into a procedural, is turning out pretty well. It's sure to work even better a second time, especially since Jekyll was a hot mess where Sherlock is only intermittently awful, so the bar is set much lower!" And yet, somehow, Do No Harm manages to fail to clear that bar. It, in fact, fails to clear the basement, and were it not suffused with a weirdly forgiving attitude towards domestic abuse I might even call it hilariously awful. Steven Pasquale plays Jason Cole, an impossibly successful, conscientious, and caring neurosurgeon whose dark secret is that he is also Ian Price, a hedonistic psychopath. Jason and Ian split the day between them, the former taking over their body at 8:25 AM, the latter at 8:25 PM, but for five years Jason has been drugging himself every night in order to keep Ian at bay (to his colleagues, Jason has put it out that he has diabetes, and thus "can't operate at night"; this has in no way retarded his ability to climb to the peak of a profession where he might reasonably be expected to be available 24 hours a day to deal with life and death situations, and the only doctor who questions Jason's competence or, indeed, his bullshit story is treated by the show and the other characters as a villain). Now Ian has developed a resistance towards the drug, and is reemerging to wreak havoc--and, in light of his years-long incarceration, vengeance--on Jason's life.
The main problem of the pilot... no, that's not right. There are no end of things wrong with the pilot, each of which might reasonably be called a show-destroying problem, but the problem with the pilot as a piece of storytelling meant to introduce this new spin on the Jekyll and Hyde concept is that Ian is almost entirely absent from it. We get a lot of scenes in which Jason freaks out over the damage Ian could do to his life and to the people unlucky enough to come across him, but absolutely no sense of what sort of monster Ian is and what he actually wants (it most certainly doesn't help that Pasquale, though marginally capable of conveying Jason's inoffensive blandness, is utterly incapable of being in any way menacing). From what little we see of him in the pilot, what Ian mainly seems to want is to smack Jason's love interests around. These include his current crush Lena (Alana De La Garza), who the pilot briefly intimates was raped by Ian, only to back down and reveal that he humiliated her after she decided not to have sex with him, and his former fiancee Olivia (Ruta Gedmintas), whom Ian attacked and mutilated (the pilot ends with the "surprise" "discovery" that, unbeknownst to Jason, Olivia has had his baby, because obviously, if you find yourself pregnant by a man who is desperate to control you, and whose unexplained medical condition--a condition that may, for all you know, be hereditary--so frightens you that you've cut off all contact with him, the obvious thing to do is take that pregnancy to term). The main purpose of both of these attacks seems to be first to give Jason the opportunity to look pained and contrite, and secondly for the women to reassure him that Ian's excesses are not his fault. If it weren't for the prevalence of domestic violence in the pilot, I might say that despite its awful execution Do No Harm had the potential to go in interesting directions--the very absence of Ian from the pilot might indicate that future episodes would have expanded his point of view and revealed him to be a more nuanced figure than Jason gives him credit for. But the fact that the show uses the abuse of women as a shorthand for evil without even giving those women (or the audience) the satisfaction of being able to hate their abuser, when topped by the aforementioned awful execution, means that I had absolutely no interest in seeing whether Do No Harm would have proceeded down that path. Its cancellation after only two episodes is richly deserved.
- The Following - Since we're on a roll with imagining the elevator pitch for all these new, high concept shows, I have to assume that The Following was pitched as "Silence of the Lambs, the TV show" (not to be confused with the Hannibal Lecter prequel series Hannibal, currently in the works). The basic premise is that a month before his execution, serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy, utterly wasted) escapes from prison and kidnaps his sole surviving victim, thus justifying the reinstatement of Ryan Hardy, the profiler who caught Carrol, and who is now a physically ravaged, alcoholic wreck (Kevin Bacon, somewhat less wasted than Purefoy since the show so far has given him a little more scope to be vulnerable, irritated, and even, in flashbacks, charming, as opposed to Carrol's unremitting creepiness, but still far better than this show deserves). The pilot pulls off its one interesting twist when Carroll kills the kidnapped victim halfway in and is recaptured, so that it can reveal that the real menace comes from a cult that he has amassed over the internet, who are now carrying out an increasingly widespread campaign of murder and mayhem in homage (or, possibly, with a more prosaic purpose in mind) of their master. The main purpose of this seems to be that the show can now posit an endless supply of attractive, intelligent, capable young people who have nothing better to do with their lives than commit impossibly inventive murder on Carroll's behalf, while maintaining the back-and-forth between Purefoy and Bacon, which is where the Silence of the Lambs comparison comes in. The problem (no, again, one of the problems) is that, at least to me, the best thing about Silence was how prominently it featured smart, competent women at every level of its story--not just Clarice Starling, but her roommate and fellow agent, her mother, the senator whose daughter Wild Bill kidnaps, and even the kidnapping victim herself, who does a great deal to keep herself alive. The Following, meanwhile, not only relegates women almost exclusively to the role of victims, it makes the crux of Carroll's philosophy and his reason for killing some twisted interpretation of the romantic ideal (ascribed to Poe, though I wouldn't exactly trust this show to present a nuanced and meaningful interpretation of the author's work and themes; despite which, by the end of the pilot I think I would have been perfectly happy never to hear the name "Edgar Allan Poe" ever again) in which a woman is a passive object of beauty--beauty that reaches its fullest expression at the moment of her death.
For all its tongue-clucking over this philosophy, The Following is still a series in which lots of young women are murdered by people who tell them that doing so will perfect them. And while there are female characters on the show--Annie Parisse, whom I enjoyed in shows like Rubicon and The Pacific, is amusingly dry as Ryan's superior officer, and Natalie Zea, finally released from two years of character assassination on Justified, plays Carroll's ex-wife, with whom Ryan is in love--none of them are sufficiently active or central to counteract the show's perception of women as objects to be worked upon (Zea's plotline, in which her son is kidnapped by Carroll's acolytes, is particularly thankless). The sole exception is Valorie Curry as one of Carrol's chief adherents, but even leaving aside how problematic it is that the only woman with any real agency on your show is a villain (who first expresses her agency by killing her domineering mother when the latter makes a pass at her new boyfriend), at no point in The Following's first two episodes is there any indication that either the character or, indeed, the show, are aware of the contradiction of a woman coming into her own in the service of a man who believes that her highest purpose is a beautiful death. I do realize that I'm in the minority in finding Clarice Starling and the women around her the most interesting thing about The Silence of the Lambs. As the forthcoming Hannibal, and indeed Thomas Harris's entire output following the film's success, indicate, for most people this is Lecter. But Joe Carroll is no Hannibal Lecter (and James Purefoy is no Anthony Hopkins), and absent both that magnetic presence at its center and the more intriguing handling of female bonds and relationships in the original novel, all that's left in The Following is a too-familiar serial killer story that revels in its bloodiness a little more than I think even its creators realize. It's a show that manages to be both boring and creepy.
- The Americans - It's pretty easy to imagine the elevator pitch for The Americans, meanwhile, and to imagine that it on its own was enough to get the show greenlit. Soviet spies masquerading as a suburban American couple in the early 80s is an instantly compelling premise, one that has intriguing associations with post-9/11 TV and its musings about enemy agents living among us (it's also an idea that seems to have taken pop culture by a storm just recently--Elementary had a somewhat implausibly timed episode centered around it, and I'm sure I've seen it elsewhere as well). There are lots of interesting directions in which you could take a premise like this, and if The Americans's pilot--a tense, fast-paced hour that crams seemingly impossible amounts of story into its running time without feeling rushed or overwhelming--has a flaw, it is that it seems, at various points, to be gesturing at every one of them, so that at its end there's very little sense of what, beyond a spy thriller in which our point of view characters are not only the "bad guys," but also doomed to failure, the show is trying to be. In some scenes, it seems to be a show about how American culture is perceived by communist infiltrators. "There's a weakness in the people," Elizabeth (Keri Russell) tells Philip (Matthew Rhys) (the two are forbidden from speaking Russian or using their real names, even in private) when they first arrive in the US, and when, in the pilot, he points out that the children they've had to maintain their cover are Americans and she expresses the hope that they won't buy into the American dream completely, Philip ruefully reminds her that "this place"--the suburbs that provide them with their perfect camouflage--"doesn't produce socialists." In other scenes the show seems to be about the toll that living a lie for so many years has on the liar, though this theme is intriguingly attached to our heroes' new neighbor, an FBI agent (Noah Emmerich) who spent years undercover with a white supremacist group before being reassigned to the counterintelligence desk. And in others still it seems to be circling that Cold War standard, the spy wondering whether all their schemes, lies, and deception were really good for anything, as Philip begins to worry that he and Elizabeth will be exposed, and suggests that they should get ahead of the problem by defecting.
Still, these are all hints, and at the end of the pilot it's hard to get a sense of either the show and its characters. Rhys has a showier part than Russell, swinging from vulnerability as he contemplates the unhappy set of options his future offers and utter ruthlessness as he tries to complete his assignments and thus stem that future's tide, but along the way he lies to various people so expertly and convincingly that it's hard to know which of these extremes, if any, to believe. Elizabeth's defining characteristic, so far, is that she's loyal to the motherland, to the point of preferring death to defection, but the show hasn't given her much space yet to explain that loyalty (and, since the pilot includes the revelation that she was raped during training by a high-ranking KGB officer who had been taught that he could "have [his] way with the recruits," it in fact seems to be making compelling arguments against that loyalty). Loyalty, in fact, seems to be the closest thing The Americans has to a unifying theme--Elizabeth and Philip's loyalty to their country, their ideals, their mission, and, increasingly, to each other and the family they've made--and loyalty doesn't have to be rational or explainable to have a profound effect on our lives. It does, however, need to be felt, and with characters whose profession is lying, whose past is hidden not just from us but from each other, and who have chosen such an insanely self-sacrificing path in life for reasons we don't know yet, it's hard to empathize with that loyalty. Still, if at this point in its run The Americans feels opaque, there is enough nuance and detail in its writing and acting to suggest that that opaqueness is deliberate, that the show's creators know the answers to the questions raised by their characters' choices and actions, and are choosing to reveal only slowly the full complexity of their world and backstory. In the meantime, The Americans is also a highly entertaining and twisty spy story, which suggests that if nothing else--though I do have hopes that the show will turn out to be much more than this--it's going to be a lot of fun.
- House of Cards - Arguably, this show is more interesting for its business model--in which DVD-rental service turned streaming video vendor Netflix has gone into producing original programming, which it is offering free of charge--than its actual substance, which is slick and well made but so far not terribly exciting. Based on the British miniseries of the same title (which I haven't seen), House of Cards boasts a star-studded cast headlined by Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood, majority whip for the newly installed congress whose hopes of being named Secretary of State are dashed by a president who needs his skill at wrangling congressmen to advance his legislative agenda. A humiliated Underwood begins plotting his revenge--which includes derailing the confirmation process of the person who has taken his place and the president's education reform--and begins by leaking sensitive information to an ambitious young journalist (Kate Mara). The whole thing is very well made, with Spacey acting as the audience's tourguide to Washington's political swamp (even speaking to the camera to introduce the movers and shakers and explain the underlying currents), and an excellently chilly Robin Wright as Underwood's wife, whose charitable activities are driven by an ambition no less naked than her husband's, and whose bond with Spacey is rooted mainly in their shared lust for power. In the pilot episode's best moment, Spacey turns to the audience after a galvanizing exchange with Wright and says "I love that woman. I love her more than a shark loves blood." It's a trite line, but Spacey sells it not only because he's so good, but because Wright is so convincing in her ambition and ruthlessness.
For all its swiftly moving and engaging plot, however, the pilot can't quite get around the fact that what Underwood is doing is rather odious--for the sake of soothing his hurt pride, he's throwing a much-needed reform under the bus. You could get behind a character who did something like this (or get behind watching them get their comeuppance), but they'd need to be a lot slicker and smarter than Underwood is, and their opponents would have to be a lot oilier and more crafty, making for a satisfyingly nasty battle of wits. For all the intelligence that Spacey radiates, House of Cards hasn't written Underwood, or his opponents, as these clever figures--it strains credulity that Mara's story wouldn't be traced back to one of the few people who had the information about the proposed education bill, and who has a motive to strike at the administration, and for that reason it makes no sense for someone as politically savvy as Underwood to have made such a brazen move (for this reason, Mara's plotline is more successful--she's smart enough to be compelling, but inexperienced enough for her blunders to be believable). As this astute article from The AV Club points out, Netflix's decision to release the entire season at once might have been the best thing for House of Cards, which when watched on a more measured schedule is eminently put-downable, but I'm not sure that even with the entire season laid out before me I'm willing to put out the time to see if the show gets more interesting, or if the various balls thrown in the air in the pilot episode, which tease stories other than Spacey and Mara's central one, will make for more intelligent storytelling. It's good to see new streams for televised content opening up, but House of Cards isn't making a compelling argument that Netflix can make an essential contribution to the medium.
- Borealis - First things first, let's have a big round of applause for Canadian TV, for being the only people in the anglophone world still making future-set science fiction. That said, Borealis--actually a two-hour pilot that hasn't (yet?) been ordered to series--is what you get when you give a TV budget to someone who's watched their Firefly DVD box set once too often and doesn't have too many new ideas of their own. This isn't to say that the show--which takes place in a raggedy, semi-legal outpost in the Canadian-controlled section of the Arctic several decades in the future, as various nations and the future version of the UN scrabble for control of the frozen wasteland that may contain the Earth's last supplies of fossil fuels--is bad, but hardly any of its beats (and there are quite a few, and even more characters, in the pilot) come as a surprise. You've got your grimy, run-down, lived-in future. You've got your grizzled, banged-about-by-life, semi-criminal anti-hero just trying to carve out a place to call his own but nevertheless moved by a latent sense of justice to fight for the little guy. You've got a bunch of has-beens and wastrels who congregate around him, and a few with a bit more sense who nevertheless find themselves won over by his innate heroism. You've got a hooker with a heart of gold, and a plucky, idealistic love interest who thinks our hero is an oaf but nevertheless lands herself in hot water which only he can get her out of. And you've got a stuffed shirt lawman who disdains his backwater posting and the uncivilized brutes he has to police, and who insists on ignoring the realities of his situation and working by the book, even if that causes the most trouble and mayhem.
Again, none of this is badly done, and the actual premise of Borealis, which combines political intrigue, nationalistic chest-beating, environmental issues, and frontier values, is an intriguing one that could be spun in interesting and complicated directions. As the show's lead, Ty Olsson cuts a charismatic figure, a bruiser who, while he may not have much more to him than the cynical-but-secretly-idealistic Mal Reynolds type he was clearly envisioned as, is brought to life with energy and verve. The rest of the cast is less well-drawn, but by the end of the pilot we have a strong sense of how the community of Borealis is constructed, where its pressure points are, and where new sources of tension might come from. It's a setting that could easily play host to interesting stories, especially after the introduction, in the pilot's last half-hour, of its sole original touch, a UN official whose goals and loyalties are not immediately obvious, who is more savvy than the other representatives of authority that Olsson's character clashes with, but not obviously corrupt or immediately evil (this character is also the only woman on the show who doesn't fall into the obvious and too-familiar types I listed above). On the other hand, not even this character could entirely keep my patience from flagging at the pilot's too-familiar beats, and the fact that its central political dispute is resolved through a cage match--one that, naturally enough, acts as an exorcism of Olsson's career-ending defeat--doesn't exactly bode well for the series. Right now, then, Borealis could go either way--a smart piece of SF about politics in the age of resource scarcity, or a much, much lower-rent SFnal Deadwood. I'd be interested to hear that more episodes of the series had been ordered, but I'm not breathless with anticipation.
- Utopia - This, on the other hand, is one of the most intriguing TV shows I've seen in a while, and though I'm absolutely convinced that it'll devolve into an unholy mess by its end, I'm having far too much fun right now to care. On paper a conspiracy thriller about four strangers--former medical student Becky (Alexandra Roach), bored office drone Ian (Misfits's Nathan Stewart Jarret, quite winning here), conspiracy nut Wilson (Adeel Akhtar), and eleven-year-old estate yob Grant (Oliver Woollford)--brought together by their fascination with a creepy comic book allegedly drawn by a mental patient, who find their lives dismantled when they come into possession of the comic's second installment, Utopia quite wisely puts most of its eggs in the weirdness basket. This is a creepy, atmospheric show, shot in a style that feels one part Wes Anderson, one part Richard Kelly, with urban and suburban landscapes and minutely decorated interiors used to claustrophobic, often surreal effect (it's one of the handsomest, most cinematic TV series I've seen in a while, and certainly from the UK). Plus, of course, there is a secret conspiracy on our heroes' trail, which means lots of scenes in which they or those unfortunate enough to know or be related to them are menaced or much worse by a pair of villains straight out of the Croup and Vandemar template (intentional or not, the Neverwhere reference only solidifies the sense that Utopia is less a conspiracy thriller and more a Gaiman-esque urban fantasy about ordinary people falling off the edge of the familiar world and into an alternate version that exists in its cracks and crevices).
The flipside of this, of course, is that Utopia has a story that it is slowly ladling out. On top of the four main characters (one of whom doesn't join the group until the end of the second episode), we have a mysterious figure who has been fighting the Evil Conspiracy since her childhood and is related to the comic's creator, but who may be as evil as the people she's fighting, and a civil servant who has been blackmailed into buying massive supplies of a dodgy flu vaccine right before a mysterious outbreak of exactly the strain it's meant to prevent, and indications that at least some of our heroes aren't who they pretend to be. Usually I like it when shows tie their convoluted plots together, and get annoyed when they deliver massive build-up and then can't pay it off, but with Utopia I find myself wishing for the show not to tie its plot strands together, not to replace portent with revelations. Utopia works because it is so weird and moody. To actually reveal what the conspiracy is about would not only cut into that sense of weirdness, but would almost certainly not be as satisfying. I might be saying that because I've only watched two episodes and am still won over by the newness of the show's style, and maybe in a few episodes more I'll start wanting some resolution and a story that makes sense. But I can't help but feel that a story like that--unless it were incandescently, improbably good--would be a let-down from what the show is right now. Utopia is probably the closest we're ever going to get to Donnie Darko, the TV show, and for the time being that's all I really want it to be.
Monday, February 11, 2013
Winter Crop 2: More Thoughts on Midseason Shows
The pilots of winter continue to pour in, and I think we can identify a trend: fall is when the respectable doctor and lawyer shows premiere; winter is when TV puts on fancy dress. This latest bunch of shows includes fantasy, thrillers, science fiction, and lots of weirdness. Not all of it works, unsurprisingly--in the time between starting this post and publishing it, the most rancid of the shows I've written about has already managed a much-deserved cancellation--but there's a lot that's new and different here alongside the tediously familiar and underworked, and that's something to be grateful for.