Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2013 Edition, Part 2
By most yardsticks, I suppose, this year's fall pilot season isn't much worse than previous years. But it is much more boring. For every show I've written about this year, there are two or three about which I had nothing to say that I haven't said a million times before--unoriginal plots, underdeveloped characters, blandly beautiful leads, indifferent procedural stories, poorly defined antagonists. In short, boring shows hardly worth talking about. The below are the few exceptions--though hardly innocent, the lot of them, of the sin of unoriginality. (Progress report on previously-discussed shows: Brooklyn Nine-Nine remains funny, SHIELD remains a show that I wouldn't be watching if it weren't for its pedigree, I gave up on Hostages after the second episode, and Peaky Blinders is a lot of fun even as its story becomes more predictable.)
- Sleepy Hollow - Every year, it seems, there's a new cheesy genre show for fandom to get bemusedly enthusiastic over, often in a so-bad-it's-good sort of way, while I stand on the sidelines and feel completely left out of the fun (see Once Upon a Time, Grimm, Arrow). This year it's Sleepy Hollow, a show that my twitter stream seems utterly enchanted by--despite, or possibly because, of its silliness--and which I find occasionally amusing but nowhere near zany or well-made enough to get me to overlook its many problems. The premise--which owes far more to Tim Burton's 1999 film than it does to Washington Irving's short story--sees Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison), here a British loyalist turned colonial patriot in the Revolutionary War, brought back to life in 2013 when his nemesis, the Headless Horseman, is similarly awakened. Ichabod teams up with Sleepy Hollow police lieutenant Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) to fight off first the horseman, and then a host of demonic creatures. Together, they discover a secret history in which the key figures of the American revolution (and Ichabod's wife Katrina (Katia Winter), a witch who has been trapped between realities for centuries) are part of a grand struggle between good and evil, a battle in which Ichabod and Abbie are destined to play key roles.
To its credit, Sleepy Hollow commits to the inherent ridiculousness of its story. The show is serious about the ludicrous things it throws on screen (and doesn't throttle back on them in an ill-advised and futile grasp at respectability), but it isn't po-faced, and will on occasion allow the characters or the story to come up for air and notice how absurd what's going on is. But to make a silly story work, a show needs to be either very well-written (which can mean doing interesting, intelligent things with shlocky ideas, as in Farscape, or simply barreling through tons of plot every episode so that the audience doesn't notice how threadbare it all is, as in Heroes), or have extremely well-drawn characters (Farscape is a good example here too, but see also The Middleman). Sleepy Hollow performs adequately on all these fronts, but not nearly well enough, to my mind, to justify the enthusiasm with which it's been received. The episode plots are generic monsters of the week only slightly enlivened by the show's fondness for inventive gore (though there's a slight uptick on the plot front in episodes three and four, when Abbie's estranged sister Jenny (Lyndie Greenwood), who has been aware of the supernatural nature of Sleepy Hollow for years and resents Abbie for denying it, is drawn into the story), and the characters, though pleasant enough, are too bland to register amidst the show's general ridiculousness. With a co-star who is a time-traveling Revolutionary soldier, it's perhaps understandable that Beharie has been tasked with playing the straight man (and her character is anyway just starting to come out of the self-protective shell she formed when she and her sister first encountered the supernatural as girls), but Ichabod, too, is depressingly mundane. For all the debts that the series owes Burton's film, it jettisons what was arguably that version's most endearing trait, the weird, over the top personality it gave Johnny Depp's Ichabod Crane, who was geeky, neurotic, and a little bit nuts. Mison's Ichabod is blandly heroic, only moderately convincing as a warrior for good or a star-crossed lover desperate to be reunited with his wife, and though the show makes a little hay out of the fact that he is a man out of time, for the most part he comes off as a generic procedural hero who just happens to wear knee-high boots and frilly shirts and say "leftenent" a lot.
Given that it shares a pedigree with Fringe (and much more besides: with an emotionally reserved heroine, a damaged family relationship, and a romantic couple seemingly parted forever featuring prominently in its early episodes, Sleepy Hollow quickly comes to feel like a very slightly reshuffled version of Fringe's first season), it's likely that Sleepy Hollow will eventually develop a complex mythology and world that might be worth watching for. But if I were into that sort of show, I'd watch the similarly smartly-constructed, indifferently-written Once Upon a Time, which has the advantage of prioritizing female characters and relationships (though it is worth noting that Sleepy Hollow's cast is remarkably diverse--Abbie and Jenny are black women, Orlando Jones plays Abbie and Ichabod's superior at the Sleepy Hollow police department, and John Cho has had a recurring role), and of not being the product of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman's brains. Adding to my dubiousness about the show is the prominence of the Book of Revelation (or rather, the pop culture conception of the Book of Revelation, which consists of only a few passages, mostly about horsemen) in its story, as well as its take on the Revolutionary war as a front in a battle between good and evil. In a world in which religious, apocalyptic thinking, and a perception of the US as being at the forefront of a two-hundred-year-old Manichean battle, has infected actual public policy and is causing untold suffering even as I write this post, it's hard to take Sleepy Hollow's unquestioning take on this mythology as just good fun. Much like Fringe's anti-science slant, this feels like a rotten core at the heart of a seemingly frivolous concoction.
- The Blacklist - Completing the triptych of high-concept, high-octane series of dubious quality along with Hostages and Sleepy Hollow, The Blacklist at least has the presence of mind to do one thing well, or perhaps just very loudly. That thing is casting James Spader and letting him loose to ham magnificently while everyone else on set throws occasional lines at him. Spader plays Raymond "Red" Reddington, a former intelligence operative who defected to become the Moriarty of international espionage, selling US secrets and facilitating enemy operations. After decades on the FBI's most wanted list, Red turns himself in and agrees to help the Bureau hunt down the titular list of bad guys, but only on the completely unexaplained condition that his handler be rookie agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone). The Blacklist, in other words, is what you'd get if you based a whole show on those plot arcs on Alias when a bad guy would turn himself in for some unspecified but obviously nefarious reason, forcing Sydney to work and possibly bond with them until they tipped their hand. The problem is that while Spader makes a passable Arvin Sloane--he plays Red with a smarmy charm and jovial good humor that almost obscure the fact that what the show presents as his chessmaster-level intelligence is actually everyone around him behaving like utter morons--the reactive, permanently befuddled Elizabeth is no Sydney Bristow. She can't hold her own against a character who, by design, holds all the plot's cards, and isn't terribly interesting in her own right. The show tries to furnish her with a side quest in the form of the revelation that her seemingly mild-mannered husband has fake passports and guns hidden in their house, but this is merely piling bland on bland, and the heavily hinted-at possibility that Red is her father is poorly handled, with none of the characters raising the question even as it grows more obvious. The Blacklist repeatedly offers up nothing more than Red running circles around people who are neither clever nor interesting, while asking us to wait around to discover who he is and what he wants. So far, I'm not terribly motivated.
- Masters of Sex- Well made and well acted as it is, it's tempting to assume that Masters of Sex is yet another attempt to recapture the Mad Men lightning, with the added bonus of a built-it excuse for copious amounts of nudity and sex--like its main characters, pioneering sex researchers William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), the show can argue that it's all for science! And certainly, in its early episodes, Masters of Sex often falls into the Look How Bad Things Were Back Then trap that marred Mad Men's first season--the people (mostly women) who openly call Johnson, a divorcée with two children, a bad mother for having a job and academic aspirations, or the young bride-to-be who comes to Masters for advice about family planning but can't get the words "birth control" out of her mouth. Neither of these scenes are unrealistic for the show's late 50s setting, of course, but especially given that the main conflict in the series's early episodes is between Masters's determination to conduct the first scientific study into the physiology of sex, and his university's unwillingness to countenance his work--which includes observing and recording the vitals of volunteers as they masturbate or have sex--it's hard not to take them as an unsubtle argument for the importance of the Masters and Johnson study. This is a particular problem when it comes to Masters's wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), a soft-spoken blur in poodle skirts who calls her husband "daddy" in anticipation of the child they're trying to conceive and is emotionally destroyed by her inability to get pregnant, not knowing that it's actually her husband's low sperm count that is at fault. Though FitzGerald does her best, one can almost imagine the show's writers sitting down to write her character and not getting any farther than Betty Draper without the thorns.
Where the show shines, however, and where it seems to promise to be more than a Mad Men clone, is in its recognition, despite Masters's repeated claims to the contrary, that it is impossible to be scientifically detached when it comes to sex. Or perhaps simply that it is impossible for William Masters, for all the he clearly believes otherwise, to be so detached. Masters's argument is that sex must be studied in order to liberate people from the ignorance that causes so much suffering and abuse, but he is incapable--or unwilling--to see that the study of sex isn't just the study of physiology, but of psychology, sociology, and even economics, and that the repression he rails against reaches into all these fields, and affects him as well. When a prostitute participating in his study reports that her first sexual experiences were of being abused by her uncle, it's clear that Masters, though moved, doesn't know how to fit this information into his scientific schema. More aware of these facts, but not yet able to articulate them (or to be heard) is Johnson, who more or less worms her way into the study from her position as Masters's secretary and quickly comes to think of it as her own. Caplan brilliantly expresses Johnson's stifled intellect, her desire to be part of something bigger than herself, and her frustration at the way that her gender prevents her from doing so. She brings the show, and the rest of the cast, to life (though her chemistry with Sheen is uncomfortable given how Masters and Johnson's relationship played out in reality, and how borderline exploitative his behavior towards her is in the show's early episodes). It's still not clear to me what kind of story Masters of Sex wants to tell--and I worry that the show is going to end up essentially arguing that sex was invented by a man in a lab coat--but in Caplan's vivid performance, and in the way that Johnson draws attention to Masters's limitations and perhaps challenges them, it has a spark of life that's going to keep me watching.
- The Wrong Mans - On his way to work one drearily ordinary morning, directionless loser Sam (Mathew Baynton) witnesses a car accident and then picks up a ringing phone from the scene. When he answers the phone, a voice on the other end tells him to deliver a ransom or "his" wife will die. Sam is flabbergasted, but his sort-of friend Phil (James Corden), a fantasist who works in the mail-room and lives with his mother, is delighted--this, he insists, is his and Sam's opportunity to slip into a new, more exciting life story, with adventure and beautiful women as their reward. The Wrong Mans, a new comedy series from the BBC, is clearly aware of its antecedents, the fact that its plot has fueled a million Chevy Chase comedies, and it works to find a new spin on this story less through the genre-savvy Phil (who is anyway less savvy than befuddled--he's perfectly convinced that his life is about to turn into the sort of movie in which the chubby sad-sack saves the day and gets the girl, and never mind how bumbling he is or how frustratingly unaccommodating the kidnappers and gangsters he and Sam encounter are), than by throwing the plots of seemingly a dozen such films into the blender, so that Sam and Phil move rapidly from one in-over-their-heads story to the next. So far the show has fielded a kidnapping, a femme fatale, several varieties of gangsters, government agents, moles selling state secrets, and stolen art. In one delightful sequence, Sam and Phil are rescued by a super-agent played by Dougray Scott who promises to save the day, but in the very next scene he wanders into his own conspiracy thriller and is immediately dispatched, leaving Sam and Phil to muddle their way through yet another crisis.
The Wrong Mans has a strong cast and a surprisingly deep bench--big name British actors like David Harewood and Dawn French turn up in bit parts--but the focus, unsurprisingly, is on Baynton and Corden (who also created and wrote the series). Either out of choice or because their story doesn't leave them much scope for originality on the character front, Sam and Phil are familiar types already perfectly drawn by Shaun of the Dead and its ilk--Sam is well-meaning but immature, unsure how to be an adult and happy to float through life without making any decisions or striving for anything; Phil is quite certain that he doesn't want any of that vaunted maturity but still expects the world to hand him an adventure. Baynton and Corden embody these roles with enough personality to make them their own (though the same can't be said for the supporting cast--it is particularly disappointing that Sarah Solemani, as Sam's boss and ex-girlfriend, is given so little to work with as she plays the standard disappointed, hectoring female part), but still the reason that The Wrong Mans works is less its originality and more how well-made it is, not just by its writers and cast but by its directors and cinematographers. The hyper-realistic, alienating style, and the tense soundtrack, put me strongly in mind of Utopia (as well as, again, Shaun of the Dead, as the show replicates that film's trick of suggesting genre tropes--the opening shot sees Sam sprawled out in his bed looking dead--only to reveal that they are merely the horror of mundane suburban life--Sam turns out to be merely very badly hung over). Like Utopia, The Wrong Mans draws a lot of its tension--and humor--from the Wes Anderson-ish trope of fixing the camera in a way that suggests normalcy, then showing us something shocking--a car accident, a murder--within that fixed frame, violating the scene's normalcy in a way that the audience doesn't know how to deal with any more than Sam does. It's a deceptively simple trick that highlights what a slick production the show is, and makes it a pleasure to watch even though its story is unoriginal. The Wrong Mans may be too familiar to transcend its inspirations, but its strong cast and style--not to mention some very funny moments--make this iteration worth watching.