It’s been a surprisingly busy news week for telephiles. NBC has carefully charted the Heroes downward spiral (in both creativity and ratings) and decided it’s time for some firings, starting with current showrunners Jeph Loeb and Jesse Alexander. The former is known primarily for his comic writing, while the latter’s biggest claim to fame is probably Alias.
I finally gave up on the show, long after I should have, in the last column. Despite the ranting and raving I’ve read on the Internet about how it’s wrong to fire these guys, I’m hard pressed to find a reason why they should stay. Maybe Loeb wrote some great comics; maybe Alexander wrote some of Alias‘s best episodes. Maybe they’re good writers who can’t oversee for shit. I don’t know what the explanation, but the show has gone into the shitter, big-time, and it’s a creative problem. NBC has basically given them creative carte blanche, a massive budget and a surprising level of faith and trust for a show that could so easily tailspin into oblivion. Maybe the network tampered—they usually do—and put restrictions on them, but you know what? Good television writers thrive under such restrictions. Heroes didn’t. End of story.
(Update, 11/10/08: The New York Times has made a number of unsettling statements regarding the level of involvement from creator Tim Kring in the third season (sole, uncredited writer of the first nine terrible, terrible episodes?) and that 20 of this season’s 25 episodes have already been written, so any creative changes won’t occur until May at the earliest. I’d say maybe they did fire the wrong person, but you know what? The show will probably end up getting canceled by then. Not even NBC can justify keeping this show on the air after critics and audiences have turned on it. They’ll never regain the audience they had, and to be frank, said audience was never that big in the first place.)
The other big news revolves around Fox’s midseason schedule announcement. The eagerly anticipated Joss Whedon nerdfest Dollhouse will suffer the same timeslot (and like the same fate) as his brilliant, short-lived Firefly. I can’t deny the greatness of Whedon, but I can deny the supposed greatness of Dollhouse. Here’s a little secret some people—especially Whedon—don’t seem to realize: Eliza Dushku… is not very good. She’s just not. Accept it. She can barely play the “tough but vulnerable” stereotype she’s nearly always cast as. While I tolerated her on Buffy and Angel (because, thankfully, she wasn’t in either very much, relatively speaking), building an entire vehicle around her—no matter how great the supporting cast or the writing is—isn’t where the smart money is. It’s only made worse by the description of the premise, which suggests Dushku will be “re-cast” in a variety of roles each week, like Alias, only 1000 times worse (and anyone who saw the third season of Alias knows the implications of that statement).
The real tragedy was Fox’s decision to pair up the sure disaster of Dollhouse with Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Anybody who’s read this column knows my affinity for that show and probably realizes how disheartening this news is. It’s a typically predictable Fox move—every time they want a quick cancellation, it’s either Friday nights or the 7PM hour on Sunday (which virtually guarantees preempts during football season, justifying cancellations long before January).
Bones (Fox)—Yay, they brought back Carla Gallo! Boo, they devoted the entire episode to making her look like a total jackass to justify her not working with the Jeffersonian team. I’ve enjoyed everyone they’ve shoved into the “new graduate intern” slot, but Gallo had the most spark and the most interesting chemistry with the rest of the group. I’ve already grown tired of the revolving door, so why tease us? I’m sure she’ll be back, now that she and Sweets are officially a couple, but why can’t she just work with them full-time? Come on, Bones! What are you afraid of?
Another fun guest appearance came from NewsRadio‘s great Vicki Lewis, who hasn’t been around much since that show. I’m sure she’s been doing a lot of theatre, but it’d be nice to get her on a series that showcased her skills as well as that classic sitcom. This appearance, while refreshing, didn’t do her justice.
Also, I’m sorry I have to say this, but it seems like once a season they have some sort of artist-related murder that invariably has ties to Angela. Did she ever do anything that wasn’t art-related? I think it’s time to put the whole “artist” thing aside and give her more dimension, and I’m not talking about adding “lesbian dabbling” to her extensive resume of sexual peccadilloes.
Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—This is the first time in awhile that they’ve given Tanya a subplot that didn’t feel like an afterthought, so I applaud the writers for that. They also did a wonderful job of tying it to a Julius-Rochelle conflict—great work utilizing the ensemble in one subplot. Also, thumbs-up for taking a very common young-woman problem and making it as bizarre, irreverent and fresh as the common young-man problems Chris faces.
Robin Givens, who appeared out of nowhere on an episode of Burn Notice last summer, reappears here as Doc’s overbearing girlfriend. I have only the haziest memories of her from Head of the Class, and I’m honestly surprised narrator Chris didn’t make any Mike Tyson jokes, but I have to admit she impressed me. She played basically the same character Tisha Campbell did a few weeks ago, but about a thousand times better. I honestly hope she works her way into the recurring cavalcade of classic-TV stars alongside Todd Bridges, Antonio Fargas, Ernest Thomas and Jackée.
The writers took the rather interesting tack of showing Chris negotiating the strange world of adulthood without quite having the faculty to do so properly or maturely. Instead, he causes mayhem and chaos—and man did Fargas do a good job of selling the hurt after Givens dumps him—and, when he tries to clean up the mess, comes to the strange realization that adults are just as messed up as the kids at Tattaglia. Nicely done, writers.
King of the Hill (Fox)—Ah, corporate synergy. King of the Hill‘s focus on Fox-owned MySpace makes me as enthusiastic for the social-networking giant as Sarah Connor Chronicles does for the glistening, sleek 2009 Dodge Ram. Despite the obvious corporate mandate at work here, I don’t mind the product placement. I don’t even mind it when it’s as glaring as Sarah Connor‘s extreme close-up of the Ram logo. Use of actual products—especially in a satirical but not explicitly negative way, as here—lends a verisimilitude that most television shows lack.
My only real complaint about the episode, which was pretty funny and well-plotted, was the character of Donna. We’ve never seen her before, we won’t see her again. I know this is a sitcom with a very standalone nature, but it would have been nice to see a long-time recurring character like Joe-Jack or Enrique get hooked on MySpace. They could have also brought Donna on a few episodes earlier and subtly foreshadowed the upcoming MySpace meltdown. They developed the character well enough, and she’s eerily reminiscent of more than a few coworkers I’ve shared office space with, but I would have preferred to see a slow build rather than a random eruption. Donna comes out of nowhere and goes back to nowhere by the end of the episode.
Mad Men (AMC)—This season’s finale didn’t quite have the emotional impact of the first season, but it worked pretty well. Strangely, the season’s biggest emotional punch came not from the Don-Betty reunion (or Betty’s angst over her pregnancy)—the “confrontation” between Pete and Peggy actually hit me on a deeper level. I also found the angst over the merger more interesting than the Cuban Missile Crisis material that paralleled it. At least in that case, it seemed like an intentional move from the writers. I will say that I hope Don and Betty work all their problems out, but I’m honestly not looking forward to another kid.
So I’m taking bets. Who thinks they’ll be ballsy and skip 1963 the way they did ’61? Or will next season’s finale revolve around the Kennedy assassination?
The Office (NBC)—So last week, we had the breakup; this week, we (very briefly) have the aftermath, as Michael opens the show attempting to convince the others he’s engaged to Holly. Unfortunately, after that things veered quite a bit off the beaten path. I’ve bitched about the coupling and triangles before, and I have to admit there’s little I care less about than the Dwight-Angela-Andy cluster. I know the writers have to give them something to do, but they really can’t come up with any better, office-focused material than a love triangle? I never bought Andy as interested in Angela to begin with, so the fact that it’s gone this far irritates me to no end. Making their selection of Schrute Farms as the wedding location such a significant part of this week’s episode really bugged me.
Pushing Daisies (ABC)—If Stephen Root’s role pans out the way I hope it does, he will single-handedly obliterate my lingering Chenoweth hate. I will stop caring because everything Stephen Root has ever done or will ever do is great, automatically.
Although the show is starting to feel the lack of Lily and Vivian, this episode did a great job of expanding this strange hybrid world, which combines storybook fantasy and film noir, by staging most of the action in the Chinese restaurant under Emerson’s office. The writers also made me feel Ned’s pain in a way I haven’t since the first season. I don’t know where they’re headed with him, his half-brothers and Stephen Root, but I’m completely on board.
Unfortunately, the mystery went quite a bit off the rails in the last quarter. Tossing Chuck and Olive into the fray as new waitresses was one of the show’s most random moments, but it didn’t add much beyond an absurd visual—and as absurd visuals go, it couldn’t even begin to compare to loutish Chinese gangsters playing poker with food. I loved a lot about this episode, but it lacked the polish of the past few weeks.
Raising the Bar (TNT)—All right, I have to call bullshit on this season finale. There were a couple of things I liked—not coincidentally, all of them tied back into who these characters are: the Charlie-Kessler subplot, Kellerman getting advice from Bobbi and taking it, Bobbi not acting inconsistently because he took the advice but “it’s different” because it’s her (that’s the way it’d go on 90% of TV shows), Michelle actually trying to do the right thing when she finds out about Bobbi’s husband. I even liked the way the story of the old lady brings Rosalind and Richard together.
I didn’t like the too-easy portrait of Bobbi’s husband first as a drug addict, then as a drug addict who chases hookers. Maybe it’s because the bulk of their relationship has been presented off-screen, or maybe it’s the blinding hotness of Natalia Cigliuti making me wonder how anyone could prefer seeking prostitutes, but that whole concept was a major tough-sell, almost as tough a sell as the idea that a doctor could be dipping into his hospital’s own supply without anyone noticing (a) the inventory is off or (b) Dr. Gilardi is stoned out of his gourd. Only people who are high don’t think others notice. And, really, it’s quick-‘n’-easy character assassination to first cause a reason for Kellerman and Bobbi to be apart, then get together without the audience feeling guilty. I wish they’d done the job of making him a more interesting, nuanced “villain” that she maybe just doesn’t get along with. It’s strangely family-hour-friendly for a basic-cable show airing in the 10PM slot with controversy master Steven Bochco at the helm. Shouldn’t this entire show consist of infidelities and obscenities? Like Rescue Me for lawyers?
I like this show a fair amount, enough to consider checking it out next season, but I have some reservations. Too often, the show dips down toward mediocrity and/or cliché territory, and that’s the material that’s just not worth the time. Despite what certain whiny netizens think, there’s way too much good stuff on television to stick with something that doesn’t want to better itself. Two weeks ago, I mentioned we needed more scenes like the one with Kellerman and Charlie on the roof. I stand by that, but if the show doesn’t deliver, I’ll probably check out before season two ends.
Sons of Anarchy (FX)—Speaking of not rising to its potential… I’ve come to a rather unfortunate decision about Sons of Anarchy. We have three more weeks until the first-season finale, and while I intend to see it through to the end of the season, I’m going to drop Idiot Boxing coverage of it. If it does the job of changing my mind about the show, I’ll cover the finale and gladly indulge in the second season, whenever it airs. For the moment, it’s so ridiculously inconsistent that I just don’t think it’s worth sticking with.
I know I turned around on this show when I last wrote about it, but the problem is, the show turned back around on me. It finally reached heights of quality—and consistency—that made me want to embrace it, but the past two episodes have been lackluster at best. In fact, last week’s episode I’m willing to simply call bad, if only because I really, really can’t stand Agent Stahl. But the irritation of Stahl just points to the other problem—Kohn wasn’t scary until the episode where he got shot in the head. He wasn’t threatening or menacing; he was pretty irritating, too. Stahl is following in the exact same pattern—a bland, cardboard-cutout of a villain who doesn’t present anything close to a real threat. So basically, if the villains aren’t going to work, what’s the point of having them? Why not just stick with these bikers and the local authorities. Already, Deputy Chief Hale has proved more interesting and threatening than the “bigger” villains, yet they’ve relegated him to the background.
Jax and Tara share similar inconsistencies. One week, Jax is all into reading his dad’s book and using his head to solve their problems; the next, he’s as much a brainless, gun-toting low-life as the others. The writers don’t take the time to write in the internal struggle of running with the club the way he has for his whole life and trying to change it so it’s more in line with what his dad wanted and what he now wants for his own son. I guess they think this conflict is implied, and it’s hard to get taciturn characters to open up about their feelings, but it’s not really reflected much in the way he behaves. I don’t think this is so much a problem with Charlie Hunnam’s performance as a problem with the writers not making Jax question decisions—even if he’s doing it non-verbally and going along with it out of loyalty.
Tara, on the other hand… While it’s believable that the problems with Kohn would bring them together temporarily, it seems inconceivable that suddenly they’d be back in each others’ arms forever. Yet, this just underscores how little we know about her. I can’t say she wouldn’t behave the way she is, because I don’t know enough about her to speculate. Now that I think about it, I can say the same for nearly every other supporting character. They’re coasting on the charm of the performers and the micro-traits the writers have given them. At the end of the day, the only characters who have any depth or consistency are Gemma, Opie, Unser and Hale. Notice that three of the four are recurring characters with maybe 1/10th of the screen time of Jax, Tara or Clay.
It’s just shaking out that these people end up more interesting because they’re reacting to situations created by the main characters, which naturally brings out new aspects of the characters. The writers don’t feel the need to bring us into why the leads do what they do, and they’re acting instead of reacting. When they do react, it often undermines what we already know about them instead of enhancing it. (Much as I enjoyed Jax shooting Kohn in the head, nothing about his character suggests he’s that emotional. He’s the cold, rational one, who would be coming up with various plans rather than acting on whims. Maybe things are different because of his history with Tara, but again, we don’t know enough about their past relationship to make it believable.) There are some exceptions to this rule, but overall, we don’t know much about them, and I have the feeling that this is the main reason why they come across as so frustrating and inconsistent.
So there you have it. A rant and a half followed by silence. Sorry, Sons fans. I’m just not feeling this one. Maybe the next few weeks will change my mind.
Supernatural (The CW)—What is this? Three or four light-‘n’-fluffy episodes in a row? Granted, Supernatural does this kind of thing exceedingly well—although the characters aren’t as great and the dialogue isn’t nearly as sharp, they’re approaching a Buffy/Angel level of quality when it comes to balancing humor and horror. And yet… I don’t really tune in to Supernatural for comedy, whether they do it well or not.
This week’s episode was almost pure laughs, and the suicidal life-size teddy bear was hilarious, but I have to give more credit to the Halloween episode. While still funny, it featured some truly disturbing moments—the inside-the-mouth shot as the husband ate razor-filled candy was as amazing as it was disgusting—and did the job of expanding both the “Sam’s a crazy demon-queller” and Dean’s “The Trouble with Angels” subplots. In the latter category, they brought in Robert Wisdom (The Wire), in what I hope will be a recurring role, as the rare angel who out-badasses Castiel.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox)—As I’ve mentioned, this show is not long for this world. Shortly after the back-nine pickup (yay!), Fox elected to move this show to the Friday dead zone, starting in February (boo!). I guess we should enjoy it while we can. The writers make it easy, because with every misstep (Derek’s boring future-girlfriend) comes a new layer of intrigue (is she the never-before-seen human working for machines?). Unfortunately, it’ll be less easy to see it go, with the cast invariably driving off into the sunset in glistening, new Dodge Rams.
As nitpicks go, I have one that could be a doozy. So here’s the thing: Ellison is wrongfully accused of murder after a terminator clone travels through time and kills a man for clothes. As you might remember from the thoroughly disgusting bathtub episode in the first season, in order to match a person physically, the machines require a certain quantity of that person’s DNA (probably less in the future, with the advanced technology). So where’d Ellison’s DNA come from? Did they spare a sample clinic from nuclear annihilation? I admit, it’s somewhat intriguing to see that they want to replace Ellison for unknown reasons—otherwise, why go to the effort of cloning him?—but how’d they get that?
Even worse, when Catherine Weaver gets him out of jail by assuming the identity of the detective… What was going on there? One assumes she killed the detective, so wouldn’t somebody get suspicious once his body’s found? “What was he doing before he died?” “Interrogating James Ellison for murder.” Nothing suspicious there! I do like the uneasy alliance between Weaver and Ellison, though, and I have to wonder if he’ll start suspecting her now.
The rest of the show was just fine—no complaints, but I have to say, nothing exceptional, either. I liked them teaming up Cromartie and Jody, the fun irony of Sarah’s softness getting them into trouble (again!—this will end up being a crutch if they keep using it, though) and the return of Riley and Kim Kelly—er, Kacy. It seems like forever since we last saw them, because Fox keeps preempting the show. If it had run in succession, John’s outburst about Sarkissian would have been more effective, as well. I have a feeling the whole thing will flow better on DVD.