Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2014 Edition
Well, here we are again. As has become traditional, the US networks scheduled a boatload of new shows for the week of Rosh HaShana (happy 5775 to those of you celebrating!), which is very convenient as it gave me some time to wade through the deluge. As usual, there are some shows I just don't have much to say about--I don't need several hundred words to say that Scorpion is awful and dumb, and as compelling and propulsive as the pilot of How to Get Away With Murder was, there isn't much to say about that show yet, and probably won't be until it starts developing its characters and themes as well as its plot--and a few that have already got me thinking. Here are my thoughts on the fall's first batch of new shows.
- Forever - ABC's new procedural wants so desperately to be this year's Elementary that it's almost funny. Like the surprisingly successful Holmes adaptation, it centers around an Englishman in New York, who has remarkable deductive abilities and a somewhat quirky and macabre worldview, and who teams up with the police, and a female partner, to solve crime. The two shows even have virtually identical title cards and musical cues. What sets Forever apart from its obvious inspiration (though not from a million vampire shows that preceded it) is that its hero, Henry Morgan (Ioan Gruffudd) is immortal, for reasons that he himself doesn't understand. Whenever he dies, Henry reappears, naked, in the nearest body of water--a detail that is presumably linked to his original death, which occurred while trying to protect a sick slave from being murdered on the passage from Africa (I'm reserving judgment on this backstory, since the show is already quite flashback-heavy and, I suspect, will deliver more details about what brought Henry to the ship and what he thought he would find there; but obviously this is a premise that has the potential to be horribly racist in about twelve different ways).
The show's first two episodes have already started hinting at a mythology--most intriguingly, Henry has begun receiving phone calls from another immortal, who claims to be thousands of years old to Henry's mere 200. But so far Forever doesn't seem terribly interested in exploring the meaning and effects of immortality in any but the most superficial of ways. It's interesting, for example, to hear Henry explain what the worst ways to die are, or to discover that his sole confidante, played by Judd Hirsch, is actually his adopted son, but so far there's been no exploration of Henry's attitude towards death, the state rather than the means of getting to it, and his eagerness to investigate and solve murders starts to seem a little odd when you consider that this is a man who has seen generations come and go and might be expected to be a little cavalier about people being prematurely shuffled off this mortal coil. In the series's second episode, the police gun down a young man who is holding Henry at knifepoint, and there's no discussion of whether he should feel guilt or pity, given that he was never in any real danger. Even more frustrating, given that Forever wants to be Elementary so badly, is its failure to introduce a Joan Watson character, someone who can puncture Henry's arrogance and get at his humanity. Instead, all the cops on the show--including the female lead and obvious future love interest (Alana De La Garza)--are awed by Henry and constantly left in the dust by his intelligence and strange way of looking at the world. What keeps Forever going despite these flaws (and despite featuring some awful dialogue and even more awful voiceovers) is Gruffudd himself, who brings so much energy and charm to the role of Henry. Even if you don't quite buy that he's lived through two of the most turbulent centuries of human history, you want to keep watching him to see what will happen next. If Forever can up its game to match his performance, it might become something worth watching.
- Gotham - I had such low expectations from this pilot that I almost didn't watch it at all. I'm sick and tired of the prequel craze (and especially a prequel for a comics universe in which I have only a glancing familiarity, so that a lot of the names dropped by a show like Gotham go over my head), but even more than that, I'm less and less interested in Batman, the character and the concept. A show dedicated to demonstrating how crime-ridden and corrupt Gotham is, so as to make the audience long for the day when a caped crusader can clean up its streets, didn't strike me as a good use of my time. But though the Gotham pilot has its moments of reveling in the depravity of Gotham's dirty streets (and in the brutality that the police exercise in response to it), it ended up suggesting a more interesting, more compelling story. A lot of this is down to the cast--casting Ben McKenzie and Donal Logue as rookie detective Jim Gordon and his shady mentor Harvey Bullock is already overpowering the show's roster quite a bit, especially compared to other superhero series, but add Sean Pertwee and Jada Pinkett Smith in recurring roles and you've got a show that looks like it's aiming as much for the prestige market (or for the seriousness of films like Nolan's Batman trilogy) as comic book fans. McKenzie is particularly good in the tricky role of the straight-shooting, slightly naive cop who is being urged to compromise his principles, managing to imbue a familiar character type with enough gravitas to make us believe him when he vows to clean up Gotham's streets. But what makes the Gotham pilot truly compelling is how it weaves a web of connections between its secondary and minor characters that makes its titular city feel alive and interesting (particularly intriguing was the revelation of a romantic connection between Renee Montoya and the future Barbara Gordon, or teenage pickpocket Selina Kyle witnessing the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne). It's these connections--and the strong acting the gives them life--that makes Gotham intriguing, for the chance to explore the city that gives the series its title, even if we know that the premise of the Batman universe means that Jim Gordon's promise to clean it up can never be fulfilled.
All that said, I can't help but wonder if the prequel approach doesn't serve to expose the flaws in the Batman universe in a way that Gotham can't, by its very nature, address. Prequels, by definition, are driven by inevitability--we know that future heroes and villains will one day take up those mantles, even if we might want them not to (it was arguably one of Smallville's core flaws that it had no idea how to resolve the problem of having created its most compelling character in the young Lex Luthor). But telling a story about a crime-ridden city means discussing inevitability of a very different sort. In the pilot, Gordon encounters a child named Ivy Pepper, whose father is an abusive small-time crook who is framed and murdered by the police, more or less in front of his daughter. It feels fairly obvious that a child who starts from those sorry circumstances will not end up living a productive, law-abiding life, but in this particular case we know that this is a certainty, and that this child will grow up to become the villain Poison Ivy. It's hard to know how to react to this knowledge. If Gotham were a straight-up crime drama we would treat Ivy's story as a tragedy, an example of the vicious cycle of abuse, neglect, and criminality. But because of the show's comics roots, what we're actually meant to feel is a frisson of excitement. Instead of rooting for Ivy to get past her awful background, we're meant to feel glad that we've seen the first stepping stone on her path towards villainhood. As the popular meme has it, Batman is a billionaire who goes out at night and beats up poor criminals, without any thought given to the social and economic causes that underpin crime. If Gotham wants to be a Batman prequel, it has to ignore those same causes, to treat future criminals as a necessary component of its story rather than a tragedy waiting to happen. With its strong cast, I can easily imagine Gotham working as a crime drama, but I suspect that it will be warped out of shape by its inevitable future.
- Madam Secretary - American TV takes a second stab at the Hilary Clinton story (following the abortive series Political Animals, today probably best known as the second TV series, after Kings, in which Sebastian Stan plays a vulnerable, damaged gay man). Though I can't help but wish that television did not still find the idea of a woman in a position of power so exotic (see also Commander in Chief from a few years back), it's nice that these stories are being told at all, and the pilot for Madam Secretary wisely downplays the gender angle--its title character, Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni) is remarkable less for her gender than for her abilities and intelligence. Unfortunately, the slant that the pilot decides to put on Beth's rise to the position of Secretary of State (following the mysterious death of the previous office-holder which is presumably going to be an important throughline in the coming season) is that she is unpolitical, not part of the Beltway mafia, and is thus able to Get Things Done--not least because she lacks aspirations for a higher office. It's extremely frustrating to see, again and again, stories that claim to be about politics but which have such a reflexive and ultimately childish disdain for it (one of the things that makes The Good Wife a great TV series is that it allows its characters to be ambitious and politically savvy without claiming that this makes them monsters). The main story of the pilot involves Beth using back channels to rescue two American college kids who entered Syria trying to join the anti-Assad rebels (it's interesting how real-world politics catches up with shows that claim to depict it: where as recently as a month ago such an attempt would have been seen as misguided but admirable, now ISIS-mania has the world's governments trying to criminalize it; of course, some things never change--the two boys are clean-cut, suburban white kids, not, heaven forbid, Arab-Americans). But by "back channels," I mean getting in touch with contacts from Beth's previous life as a spy, and personally negotiating for the boys' release, which is incredibly small fry for someone with the power of the whole State Department behind her. I'm interested enough in Madam Secretary to keep watching--and the show does have a strong cast and sharp dialogue that make the prospect of keeping up with it less than onerous--but I wish I believed that it was actually interested in a real conversation about politics (not to mention women in politics) rather than the simplistic, black-and-white stories it tells in its pilot.
- Red Band Society - There's probably an interesting story to be told about the friendships and dramas that develop in a children's hospital ward. Unfortunately, Red Band Society is less interested in being that show as it is in being a boarding school soap that just happens to take place in a hospital--an absurdly luxurious hospital where patients live full-time even though there's no reason for them to do so (maladies that, according to Red Band Society, require you to live in a hospital include: osteosarcoma, cystic fibrosis, and waiting for a heart transplant), and where parents never visit except for the one guy who has lost his visitation rights because he caused the accident that put his kid in a coma, and who therefore masquerades as a volunteer. Having recently experienced the hospitalization of a family member--at a very nice private hospital, I should note--I recognize nothing about how Red Band Society conceives of hospital life. Real hospital are cramped and uncomfortable. Every available bit of space is crammed with equipment and supplies for which there's never enough room, and the staff are always running back and forth, doing a million things before they can get to you and your needs. In comparison, the hospital in Red Band Society feels like, well, Hogwarts, with a firm but kind-hearted head nurse (Octavia Spencer) who seems to have nothing better to do with her time than police, discipline, and gently encourage her patients, as if she were their teacher and not a medical professional. The young actors who play the sick leads are all strong, and the pilot gets an appropriate amount of drama out of, say, a 14-year-old boy taking a last run before his cancerous leg is cut off. But the pilot seems less interested in the obvious stakes of a hospital drama set on a children's ward than it is in teenage melodrama that, no matter what the success of The Fault in Our Stars would seem to suggest, isn't made any more interesting just because the kids it's happening to might be dying.