Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2017 Edition
I've been doing these fall TV reviews for more than a decade, and every year they feel less relevant, as either a guide to shows that people might like to watch or a commentary on the state of TV. It's not that I believe that network TV is no longer capable of producing worthwhile, exciting fare--after all, my favorite show currently airing, whose second season is somehow managing to top even its stellar first one, is a network sitcom. But pretty much everything the networks have trotted out this fall, good and bad, has felt inessential, like retreads of old ideas and trends that aren't really worth taking the time to talk about. My focus in this post, then, is on the one thing that makes this fall unusual--the fact that in the space of a month, we've seen the premieres of four different SF shows. Not all of them are good, but their subject matter means that all of them are sufficiently far from the standard network template that I can find something to say about them.
- The Orville - By now you've probably heard that Seth MacFarlane's new space-set show is not, as you might expect from its description, appearance, and MacFarlane's involvement, a parody of Star Trek, but an hour-long adventure show that is entirely earnest in its use of Star Trek's tropes and conventions. This, however, doesn't even come close to capturing the strangeness, and the awkwardness, of what MacFarlane has produced with The Orville. Watching it feels like what I imagine it would be like if you could follow along and watch--but never participate--in someone else's not-very-sophisticated but extremely well-funded Star Trek LARP. As a television show, The Orville is bad--the storytelling is slow and dull, the dialogue is stilted and full of infodumps (which none of the actors know how to deliver), the characters are barely there--but one feels almost embarrassed to point this out, as if by doing so you're interrupting someone else's fun. In all my years of watching way too much TV, I have never encountered a show that gave off so pronounced an impression of being completely uninterested in me or any other member of the audience, of existing solely so that its creator--MacFarlane, as Ed Mercer, the newly-minted captain of the titular ship--could cosplay in his favorite fictional universe.
As a Star Trek fan myself, this is an impulse that I might be expected to sympathize with. But one of the very first things The Orville reveals, once you get past the strangeness of its project, is how shallow MacFarlane's take on Star Trek actually is. Oh, the look is all there--the costumes, cityscapes, and spaceships all look exactly like what you'd get if you took the aesthetic of The Next Generation and updated it to keep up with 2017 fashions and production values--and the terms are all easily recognizable--instead of the Federation you've got the Union; instead of Klingons you've got a species whose name I didn't even bother to learn, but who cares, they're Klingons. And in interviews, MacFarlane has spoken about his desire to return to the "optimistic" type of space exploration stories that Star Trek specialized in. But the actual stories showing up on screen contain none of the depth or wit that made Star Trek actually good, and the prevailing emotion in the show is less optimism than blandness. Star Trek has a reputation for being sterile, for ignoring the real messiness of human life and relationships in its zeal to depict a future in which so many (but by no means all) of the sources of human misery had been eliminated. Leaving aside for a moment whether that's an accurate perception, The Orville's solution to this alleged problem only reveals what a depth of emotion there was in the series it takes off from, and how insufficient MacFarlane's "modernized" take on it is. The characters on The Orville aren't messy and human; they're shallow and immature. And not even in fun ways--if the show were more strongly comedic, it might be possible to forgive the fact that its characterization comes down to having the cast speak in 21st century slang and make ever-so-slightly risque jokes. But given its earnest tone, the thinness of its stories and character arcs is simply unforgivable.
Instead of relying on humor, The Orville cadges storylines from both its obvious inspiration and real life--the second episode borrows from several top-notch Star Trek episodes when it reveals the existence of an alien zoo where sentient species are kept as displays; the third episode revolves around a female baby born to an all-male species, whose parents want to give her gender reassignment surgery. But the handling of these ideas is invariably shallow, dull, and terrified of controversy--in the third episode, MacFarlane and his writers somehow manage to go a whole hour without ever mentioning the existence of intersex humans, much less suggesting that in The Orville's idealized future, such people might be considered unremarkable. A similar shallowness afflicts the characters' relationships, the most important one of which is between Ed and his ex-wife, Kelly (Adrianne Palicki, who deserves so much better than this), who cheated on him and is now trying to make amends by helping to put his career, derailed by their divorce, back on track by serving as his second-in-command. It's tempting to roll your eyes at such a hoary premise, but it might have been better if The Orville were wall-to-wall ex-wife jokes. Instead, it plays the relationship between Ed and Kelly mostly straight, and in so doing draws attention to the fact that neither one of them behaves like anything resembling a human being, much less one wracked by the kind of deep feelings you'd expect the breakdown of a marriage following infidelity to arouse. There's the slightest uptick in drama in the third episode, when we witness the conflict between the alien parents who disagree over whether to "conform" their female child, but still not at the level of getting us to care about these people, one of whom is a series regular. I can almost sympathize with MacFarlane's desire to have another show like Star Trek on the air, but he's so bad at making a version of Star Trek that realizes why that show was special that he might as well not have bothered.
- Star Trek: Discovery - An additional reason to resent the existence of The Orville is that it has exposed a surprisingly wide seam in Star Trek fandom who, like MacFarlane, seem to think that Star Trek's appeal begins and ends with nostalgia. These are the people who tend to slag off the most recent addition to the actual Star Trek canon, Discovery, while claiming that The Orville represents "real" Star Trek. Which is probably making me a lot more partial to Discovery than the show currently deserves. Taken on its own merits, Discovery is a frustrating but fascinating mix of good and bad, Trek and not-Trek. But what I appreciate about it is that, even in its worst moments, there is a palpable sense that the people creating it are trying to move Star Trek forward, both as an idea and a work of television. Not everything they're doing works, and given how withholding the show's storytelling is, even four episodes in, it'll probably take me until the end of the season to decide where I come down on it. But the idea that it is necessary to grow and change in order to keep telling a story about the infinite possibilities of the future is the most quintessentially Star Trek thing imaginable, so in that sense at least, Discovery is on the right track.
Perhaps the most disorienting--and at the moment, un-Star Trek-like--thing about Discovery is that it's the story of a person, not a ship or a place. Heroine Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) quickly goes from rising star in the Starfleet ranks to mutineer to a press-ganged crewmember on the titular ship, whose captain, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) is conducting a mysterious and probably ill-fated experiment in new propulsion systems, and whose ship is filled with secrets and mysteries. It's not how Star Trek is supposed to work--the ship is always supposed to be home; the crew, even if they disagree, are always supposed to be allies--and, especially for fans traumatized by the recent movies' tendency to throw every idea and principle that made Star Trek what it was out the window in service of a generic action plot and an unearned hero narrative, it's a worrying decision. What keeps me feeling hopeful about Discovery is mainly Michael herself, who is a wonderful blend of intellect and temper, calm reasoning and self-destructive urges. The badass/fuckup combination that failed so catastrophically with NuKirk works wonderfully here, mainly because the writing and the performance combine to create the impression that Michael is always thinking, always questioning, genuinely curious about her surroundings and genuinely thoughtful in her choices--even the bad ones. If she's not quite the Hornblower-esque figure that the original Kirk was, she's a fascinating modern variation on it--not least for being a black woman.
The rest of the Discovery crew are still being revealed, but there's a similar complexity to some of the ones we've already met. Commander Saru (Doug Jones), a member of an alien race who are congenitally fearful and pessimistic, but who is also decent and kind; Lieutenant Stamets (Anthony Rapp), a scientist who is caught between elation and disgust that the military are fast-tracking his project; Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman), Michael's roommate who appears to have some sort of anxiety disorder, but who is also ambitious, and willing to learn even from an unlikely source like Michael. They all feel like people with their own points of view, and more importantly for a Star Trek context, like people who are used to looking at the universe like a puzzle, not an obstacle course. There are other aspects of the show that feel more conventional, more like the action-adventure direction that the movies took--Lorca and the suggestion that he's a villain; his mean-tempered chief of security Commander Landry (Rekha Sharma); most of all, the show's take on the Klingons, who have so much less personality and individuality than they did in The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. As I've said, I probably won't know how I feel about Discovery until at least the end of the first season. But what I do know is that there isn't another character like Michael Burnham on TV right now, nor another story that gives her the opportunity to be a badass, a scientist, and a political thinker. That, to me, feels like Star Trek.
- The Gifted - Fox's second X-Men series is a great deal less trippy and surreal than Legion, but has essentially the same premise--mutants fleeing for their lives and freedom from sinister government agencies. The more conventional style and structure allows The Gifted to be more political, though I'm reserving judgment on how successfully. In a world where draconian laws allow the government to detain and intern mutants, a middle class couple discover that their children have abilities, and go on the run, teaming up with the mutant underground. The twist is that the family's father, Reed Strucker (Stephen Moyer) is a lawyer for the government whose job is to criminalize and prosecute mutants. In fairness, The Gifted seems aware of the inherent problems of focusing its story about oppression on a former oppressor, who only realizes his actions were wrong when they affect his own family. Already in the first episode there is evidence of subtle criticism of Reed and his wife Kate (Amy Acker, once again being unimaginatively asked to play weepy and overwhelmed), who are the kind of people who pride themselves on being decent and law-abiding, but who, when push comes to shove, genuinely don't seem to believe that the laws should apply to them. An early scene sees Reed demand severe treatment of students who have bullied his son by, ironically enough, bullying one of his teachers, and when the scary Sentinel Services come to take away the Strucker children after an incident at their school, Kate, who had previously told Reed that he is "keeping us safe" from mutants, flatly denies that the government has any right to take her kids.
It's still possible that The Gifted means for us to see this behavior as uncomplicatedly heroic, and not to notice the Struckers' privileged habits of thought (though the second episode sees Kate being confronted with the fact that she didn't care about how badly mutants were being mistreated until she realized her children were mutants). But an additional way in which the show addresses its potential problems is by not focusing exclusively on Reed and Kate. Equal time is given to the Strucker children, Lauren and Andy (Natalie Alyn Lind and Percy Hynes White), who have a nice big sister-little brother rapport, and who clearly don't entirely trust their parents--one of the best scenes in the pilot comes when Lauren reveals that she's been hiding her mutant abilities for three years because she didn't know how Reed and Kate would react. The mutant underground are also given their own storyline, and though I could wish that the show were told more strongly from their point of view (not least because the underground is a great deal more diverse than the lily-white Strucker family), it doesn't treat them as a means to Reed's ends, nor as helpless victims who need him to save them. A lot depends on how The Gifted will develop its story going forward--there's a lot of potential for the show to be a story about a racist who Learns Better, and by this point we should all be able to look around and see that it doesn't work that way. But if the show continues to challenge Reed and Kate on their privilege, and to develop the storylines of the kids and the other mutants, it might end up having something interesting to say about its extremely familiar premise.
- Marvel's Inhumans - There's probably nothing I can say at this stage that will add to the torrent of scorn that has rained down on Marvel TV's latest effort. The only thing I can say is that it's all deserved. Inhumans is a genuinely awful show: poorly written, indifferently acted, and with almost no characters that anyone could care about or be interested in. What I will say is that I was a little surprised by this failure. Scott Buck's last tour of duty with Marvel, Iron Fist, was pretty bad in its own right (though, amazingly, still better than Inhumans), but the one thing it got right was the twisted 1% family drama of the Meachums, Danny Rand's business partners. Given that the one thing I kept hearing about the Inhumans was that they were a superpowered Dynasty, Buck seemed like the perfect fit. And yet for some reason, he seems to have misplaced the instincts he had for that kind of soap opera storytelling when it came time to write Inhumans, trying to sell the show as a straightforward story of good versus evil, even as the actual characters and premise he presents completely fail to earn those designations.
Inhumans is set in the secret city of Attilan on the Moon, where the part-alien title characters live in a society governed by a rigid caste system. At puberty, young Inhumans are exposed to Terrigen Mist, which either transforms them and gives them powers, or leaves them human. The latter group are then sent to toil in the mines, while the former live like kings--literally, as our heroes Black Bolt and Medusa (Anson Mount and Serinda Swan) rule over Attilan along with the rest of the royal family. The obvious perversity of this arrangement is recognized only by Black Bolt's brother, Maximus (Iwan Rheon), who orchestrates a palace coup and gains the people's support by promising them new living space on Earth. In other words, at the very least Inhumans should be a twisty tale of intrigue and double-crosses where no one is purely good or bad (though frankly, the only reason not to be completely on Maximus's side is that he keeps killing people who get in his way). Instead, the show presents Black Bolt, Medusa, and their supporters as completely in the right, and Maximus's actions as completely evil, and leaves no space for the kind of political machinations its premise clearly demands.
Of the cast, only Rheon and Swan seem to realize that they should be playing entitled, arrogant aristocrats, whose appeal comes not from being likable but from total self-possession. Even they, however, can't do much with the story or characters they've been given. The show fares much worse with Black Bolt, who can't speak because his voice has terrible concussive properties. Seemingly no thought has been given to how to convey the personality of a completely silent character, and so Maximus's accusation that Black Bolt is passive and unwilling to plan for the future end up carrying a lot of weight, further cementing the feeling that neither he nor his family deserve to win this particular game of thrones. One imagines that, like The Gifted, the arc of this story will be for the "good" Inhuman characters to take the opportunity of having been humbled in order to Learn Better and then remake Inhuman society into a more equal place. But, even if the execution so far were not so very bad, that feels like a waste of a good premise. There's nothing wrong with a twisty soap opera, and the world of Marvel is obviously a rich setting for one. Not everything needs to be about heroes and villains.