The Emmys were Sunday, and while the show itself was regarded as a disaster, I have to applaud some of the dark-horse winners: Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad and Zeljko Ivanek from Damages both did exceptional work, worthy of the accolades and awards they’ve received. Plenty of other winners deserved it, but they were mostly the obvious choices. I could go on and on about my issues with 30 Rock and disappointment with its truckload of awards, but what’s the use? If you like the show, I won’t change your mind; if you don’t, I’m the sympathetic shoulder to lean on.
Bones (Fox)—This episode marked the return of Zack, who I find I didn’t miss all that much. I liked the small amount of character de-assassination after last season’s rushed finale. I didn’t have as much of a problem with the Zack reveal as other Bones viewers—it surprised me, but it didn’t enrage me. Maybe it’s because I never had much fondness for Zack, or because they explained his motivation in a rational (but rushed) manner. And, again, because I’m not a big Zack fan, I found myself feeling sorry for the Benjamin McKenzie-esque new intern. He seemed like a nice guy, as smart and socially inept as Zack, but then he has his heart broken by Zack the Sociopath breaking out of the hospital (in a very poorly telegraphed way—sorry, Bones writers). At least they didn’t try to make us laugh or scoff at his misery, with the writers pointing out the insular nature of this group.
They’ve used Sweets as comic relief since he started, so it was nice to get a little bit of dramatic work from John Francis Daley—anyone who’s seen Freaks & Geeks knows he’s more than capable for this kind of work. That final scene with Zack was very effective, thanks to the writers not having Sweets fall back on his nerdy charm.
The mystery itself had some interesting moments—notably Brennan’s self-examination after talking to the obnoxious publisher—but overall, it returned to the show’s older mold of predictable criminals and took it one step further by even making the motivation for the murder predictable. I’m usually terrible at guessing whodunit and why, but this episode I had it called by the end of the first act—and I was right.
Eureka (Sci-Fi)—They had a decent finale after a crappy season, and they did a decent enough job of explaining What Thorne’s Deal Is, but I’ve had it with this show. The finale wasn’t bad, but it didn’t reaffirm my faith in the show’s quality, nor did it suggest any paths that would lead to its continued improvement. Sorry, Eureka. You had a good first and second season—too bad it had to end so soon.
Fringe (Fox)—This week definitely improved on last week’s colossal failure. It’s not enough to take me off the fence—for better or worse—but it combined passable entertainment with a plot that made a small amount of sense. Plus, while many elements of the episode are derivative, the aping wasn’t nearly as direct as last week’s Leech Woman, and it also wasn’t nearly as stupid…
…but it was still sorta stupid. I have to ding Astrid Farnsworth a little, because the first attempt at character development she gets—that she majored in linguistics—makes her seem like an idiot almost immediately thereafter. Seriously, she can parse Latin and come up with “South Street Station” immediately, but “hora” trips her up? “Hora,” or a variation on it, is “hour” in, like, five different languages. Come on! This might seem like a minor nitpick, but it represents of the sloppiness that’s plagued the show from the start.
Yes, sloppiness, Fringe‘s biggest obstacle. Look at the three episodes so far. One reason that Olivia Dunham hasn’t yet ingratiated herself as a character is that she doesn’t have a strong personality or, really, any sense of direction. Part of the dullness stems from Anna Torv’s still-awful performance, but after three episodes, I’m almost willing to swallow my pride and say she’d give a better performer if they wrote a more solid character. So far, Dunham has stumbled into the series’ premise by accident. She spends about two scenes per episode doing actual investigation, and after that she leaves it up to Wally and Peter. Olivia Dunham was presented in the pilot as our window into this world, but she doesn’t seem to actually care about this world. But, then, neither does any other character, with the possible exception of Broyles, who’s too closed off and “mysterious” to be bothered with. We’re dealing with the world of “fringe science,” so where’s the sense of wonder? I don’t see this show as a rip-off of The X-Files because that show gave us two very strong, forceful characters off the bat. One true believer, one skeptic, forced together. Everyone on Fringe believes, but none of them care. They just do what they do because the plot tells them they have to solve the mystery before the hour ends—that’s sloppy. Even if this slovenly approach to writing doesn’t destroy the show quickly, it still begs the question: if Dunham doesn’t care, and the writers don’t care, why should we?
Another hint of bigger problems down the road came from this week’s guest star, the tormented psychic tuned into the supposed “ghost network.” So far, he’s the most interesting and likable character in the show’s brief history—a problem considering he isn’t a series regular. This speaks well of Zak Orth, the actor who played Roy, but it signals a major problem in the show. I know it’s plot-driven, I know they’re trying to avoid the manic soap opera that Alias became and Lost and Felicity always were, but… What drives these people? Broyles is driven by an obsession with The Pattern, but his reasons for the obsession remain a mystery. That’s fine, but what interests do the remaining characters have? None of them seem to care about The Pattern one way or the other, so why are they even a part of this team?
I have too many questions, but these aren’t the Lost-style mysteries that keep me watching; these are holes in the writing that will most likely make me stop watching.
Heroes (NBC)—With so much hype surrounding the return of Heroes, which squandered both creative potential and audience goodwill in its disaster of a second season, the two-hour third-season premiere could only disappoint. I didn’t expect it to blow me away, and it didn’t. However, I also didn’t expect it to be a total disaster, and in many ways… It was.
The plodding pace and stupid, stupid decisions plaguing the first hour made me lose hope altogether, but I will reluctantly admit that things picked up in the second hour. However, both hours made me realize the exact nature of Heroes‘ problem:
Everyone needs to die.
Maybe that’s a little drastic, but at the very least, a significant amount of fat needs trimming. The show’s cast and number of storylines continue to bloat, while maintaining characters who have, at best, lost their initial intrigue and mystique or, at worst, have become so soul-crushingly moronic that they’re no longer relatable as humans. They’ve become pawns in slipshod, nonsensical stories. Here are a few random examples, taken solely from this third-season premiere:
Sylar—Sylar’s the poster boy for characters who should have died—and stayed dead—at the end of season one. The moment he slunk off into the sewer, I knew Heroes was worse off for it. I know Sylar has his contingent of cat-lady fans who believe, if someone just loves him enough, he’d stop being evil—but from a creative standpoint, he’s worn out his welcome. I liked him in the first season—an effective villain with a fascinating backstory. What was creepy in season one became tedious and one-note in season two, and now…
First off, the writers probably made the absolute dumbest decision by allowing Sylar to absorb Claire’s power. But they also take the blame for the character’s stupidity, as well. What kind of plan is this? “I’ll just walk into immortal Claire’s house and try to fuck with her.” Good call, dude! Also, Sylar, who has absorbed such a wide variety of powers, somehow can’t do away with the cheapest, ricketiest particle-board pantry doors ever displayed on television?
Claire Bennet—Big points off for succumbing to the following horror-movie clichés: running and hiding in an enclosed space with no other exits, stopping to admire her handiwork after stabbing Sylar (thus allowing him to get the drop on her before she could flee), not immediately killing him the instant she sees him. You might say part of her is scared, but I’ll go ahead and say another part of her is immortal. Just, like: Sylar. Ahh. Stab. Instead, she lets him do his James Bond villain routine as she backs away, terrified. None of this even approached the level of suspense of a D-list ’70s horror movie. Know why? It’s no longer the ’70s! We’ve seen it, and the poor writing and poor blocking made both Claire and Sylar seem incredibly dumb.
Peter Petrelli… OF THE FUTURE!!!—The full list of Peter Petrelli stupid moments would take up more space than this column, so I’ll pick my favorite. Try to follow this one. Peter Petrelli can travel through time. He uses this to travel back four years and shoot his brother to change the future. Then, he finds out he’s made things worse. And he just stares mournfully and lets his mother browbeat. Peter, you can still travel through time! Why not go and repair the problems he’s created, or go back to five minutes before the shooting and convince the other him to not shoot Nathan. It’s hard to argue with yourself from a day in the future.
Hiro Nakamura—Remember the ire I spewed at the House season finale, in which the writers decided to destroy the House-Wilson friendship (the only part of the show still worth watching)? It kills me to say this, but Tim Kring & Co. have done the same thing with my beloved Hiro and Ando. Worse than that, they’ve given Hiro the dumbest imaginable reason for distrusting Ando. “In a weird vision four years in the future, I see a version of you kill me with a superpower you don’t have.” In a world of shape-shifters and other deceptions, why automatically assume this is Ando? And why would this affect your present-day relationship with him? If anything, it might make Hiro work a little harder toward self-examination. “What is it about me that might make my best friend want to kill me? It couldn’t possibly be me dragging him on adventures, despite his unwillingness. Clearly he’ll just become evil one day.” And let’s not even get into the writers using the “apocalyptic future vision” crutch yet again.
Mohinder Suresh—Anyone who’s watched more than one episode of Heroes already knows that Mohinder is extremely gullible (not to mention the world’s worst “scientist”). He took it to the next level in this premiere, where he sucks some semen-resembling fluid out of Maya, analyzes it, and injects some magical fluid into himself to gain his own powers. Then he overdoes it, and if things play out the way it looks like they will, this whole subplot will devolve into a lame metaphor for addiction a la Willow’s magic addiction on the sixth season of Buffy. You guys didn’t need to give me another reason to dislike Mohinder.
And these are just the dumb characters. Don’t even get me started on the superfluous characters—Maya, Niki/Jessica/Tracy, Nathan, Micah… I’d even go so far as to say Elle Bishop is fairly pointless as a character. So if they’re going to continue me down a path of hating Hiro and Ando, if they’re going to make Claire stupid and separate her from Noah—all I have left is Parkman, who’s stuck on an African safari that may end up as this season’s “Hiro stays in feudal Japan way too long” subplot.
This is a show that’s dependent on being interested in at least some of the subplots happening. At the end of the day, it’s just another primetime soap: you have characters you love and hate, stories that are awesome and dull… After this premiere, I’m only interested in one story—Peter… OF THE PRESENT stuck in the body of Veronica Mars‘ Francis Capra, hanging around with a group of thugs that includes Jamie Hector (who played Marlo Stanfield on The Wire). Everything else? Eh.
What a disaster. I hope it gets better, but don’t be surprised if I bail in the next few weeks.
The Office (NBC)—For the most part, The Office has opted to ignore summers. It hasn’t bothered me, but I have talked to some people who are a little bothered by the show’s documentary conceit ignoring summers. After all, work goes on year-round. But, come on: much as I enjoy this show, it’s a sitcom. If you’re going to nitpick the realism of the documentary style, you also have to nitpick the realism of Dwight Schrute, and the whole thing falls apart. It’s my job to take this stuff too seriously (see Heroes above), and I’m telling you not to sweat it.
Nonetheless, this year The Office writers came up with a nifty idea to cover the summer quickly—with a Dunder-Mifflin weight-loss program of epic proportions. Although it caused a lot of great, in-character chaos—Kelly’s crash diet, Dwight’s hostility toward the larger people in the office, Michael’s horrible “Michael Klump” pep-talk—it almost felt like a subplot in comparison to the relationship drama unfolding around. Of the various stories they tackled, the one that most interests me the most is the Kelly-Ryan-Darryl triangle. Combined with Ryan’s enemies list, this could end up providing some of the funniest material in the upcoming season.
I’m a little less enthusiastic about the sheer number of romantic triangles in play: Michael-Jan-Holly, Dwight-Angela-Andy, Jim-Pam-???—if anyone wants to nitpick the realism, look no further than this. Four love triangles in one office that has maybe 20 people in it (including the warehouse)? I like all of these characters, and I don’t even mind the ideas contained in these triangles, but I do wish they could find more natural, workplace-related sources of conflict. Anything on par with Stanley’s classic outburst last season would be nice.
Raising the Bar (TNT)—This week, Raising the Bar took a pretty interesting idea—that of defending the killer of someone you’ve also defended—but didn’t do as much with it as they could have. I guess they had to make room for more exciting banter between Kellerman and Ernhardt. Still, this episode did have one big thing going for it: a recurring role for the awesome David Selby. He played several variations of Quentin Collins on Dark Shadows, the legendary ’60s soap whose mind-blowing greatness paved the way for shows like Kolchak: The Night Stalker (the original TV movie was actually directed by Dan Curtis, producer and creator of Dark Shadows) and, all the way down the line, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, whose combination of black humor and soap-opera histrionics bore more similarities to Dark Shadows than anyone wants to admit. It’s a great show, and Selby played the hell out of a character with Shakespearean complexity. He should have been a much bigger star, but alas… At least he’s on Raising the Bar now, however briefly.
Sons of Anarchy (FX)—I still don’t know where this show stands with me, but it’s compelling enough to keep me interested. Part of it is the difficulty of not having any idea where it’s going, long-term—running around trying to expand their territory is an interesting premise for an episode, but will this decision impact them in the future? Will the shootout? It had some great standalone moments—the entire subplot with Jax’s new “old lady,” feeding the dog meth—but this show rarely feels finished, operating more like a miniseries than an actual series. I don’t know why this bothers me. I guess it’s an act of endless plate-spinning that could come crashing down at any time, as opposed to plate-spinning for an hour a week, then winding it down and waiting for later.
I’ve seen too many shows sag under these conditions, which makes me appreciate shows that can balance long-term arcs with standalone episodes (Lost, Breaking Bad, Mad Men) and appreciate even more shows that can keep everything in play without anything collapsing (The Wire is the only show that did this with unwavering consistency for five seasons—every other show, no matter how good at times, has fallen apart or stayed past its expiration date). So, you know, I like this show, but it makes me worry more than it should. I guess creator Kurt Sutter’s description of the show as a modern Hamlet should give me some security that they know where they’re going, but I know Hamlet, and it doesn’t end well for anyone involved.
Supernatural (The CW)—Great job with the continuity and finding a decent motivation to have all these characters return. Meg, Henriksen, Ronald and some creepy Shining sisters (from Bobby’s past), all coming back as ghosts unleashed by… Well, Lilith, I think. They’re here to cause distracting havoc while Lilith breaks some seals that separate our wonderful, peaceful planet with an apocalyptic hellhole. Aside from my continuing doubts about Genevieve Cortese replacing Katie Cassidy as Ruby, this season will kick major ass if they stick with this arc and keep up the level of momentum.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox)—So Cromartie kidnaps Sonya Walger, who I’m tempted to call Penny because she played Penelope Widmore so memorably on Lost and has been less memorable here, as Michelle, but I’ve tried to impose a rule where I won’t refer to characters by their names from a previous show. I may not always stick to this rule, but feel free to point it out when I do. I’ve seen it on other television-related sites, and it bugs me. Anyway, Walger’s less-memorable role here is not really her fault, especially now that her character is dead.
What is memorable is how stupid and avoidable her death is. I don’t know if it’s a positive or negative that Michelle’s death is her own stupid fault. Sarah didn’t exactly force her Bataan death march through the desert; in fact, Sarah told her to stay behind until they found transportation and/or help, but Michelle refused. Was this cheap ploy by the writers to kill her Michelle off without putting the blood on Sarah’s hands? It would disappoint me if that were the case, because the writers haven’t pulled many punches so far, but it does strike me as a bit of Character Assassination Theatre to have this person barely exist, then bring her in the forefront only to be tortured by Cromartie, then die of her own stupidity.
They could have had Cromartie kill her—his “mousetrap” ruse still could have worked, if he knows of the human desire to bury loved ones. Charley would still want to take her, there would still be a bomb, it would prompt similar arguments, but the killing would make Michelle seem so dumb or, I don’t know, jealous? (Her decision to go with them definitely seemed motivated by something resembling fear of Charley and Sarah gallivanting off together.) Or maybe they could have had her, you know, wait but still die. It provides the exact same conflict with Charley and Sarah: “You never should have made me leave her alone.” Instead, it’s “You never should have let her come with us.”
On a more positive note, Cromartie’s plans are becoming a bit more sophisticated. In fact, if you look at it, he may have engineered this “mousetrap” ploy going all the way back to Ellison. Cromartie’s interactions with Ellison led him to confess to Michelle, which led her and Charley to leave town, which led them on a predictable path that the cyborg exploited. Related to that, the imagery of Charley abandoning Ellison’s Bible, while rushed a bit, was pretty effective. I don’t know if the character’s role is expanding, but this is a good setup for the future.
Similarly, I enjoyed the pier chase with John. We’re learning more about these terminators—and they’re learning more about themselves. I’m pretty sure Cromartie won’t fall for the old “dive into the ocean” routine a second time. They’re also giving us an odd “jealousy” type of angle with Cameron and Riley might not work in the long run, but in the short-term it’s a very intriguing idea, integrating this “normal” girl into the Connors’ warped family unit. I just hope they don’t make her “evil.”
Speaking of villains, relegating Shirley Manson to one short scene per episode is an excellent creative decision. I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but I think the character of Catherine Weaver has potential—maybe Manson will grow into the role over time, but for now, her acting leaves a bit to be desired. But commissioning Ellison to seek out some other terminator—goldmine. Continuing him on his warped religious quest while deepening the terminator mythos? What’s better than that?