Posts in: November, 2008

Sci-Fi Metaphors & Wasted Potential

On Monday, I talked a little about how much I liked a post-Apocalyptic western. I’ve also mentioned, on occasion, my disappointment about wasted potential. This seems to happen much more with sci-fi than other genres, but I’m not sure why. I’m not what you’d call a huge sci-fi fan, but I do enjoy imaginative forms of unreality—bleak futures, alternate Earths, alien worlds, etc. The problem comes when a writer creates a vivid, unique world…and tells a shitty story within it. The Time Machine was pretty great until he travels into the future, which is problematic since nobody but me will see a movie called The Time Machine that’s about a 19th-century tinkerer trying to rescue his slain girlfriend. The Final Cut isn’t what I’d call great, but it had good ideas and could have made some very interesting statements about paranoia and the “Big Brother” culture. Instead, it settled for ripping off The Conversation and delivering a shockingly stupid ending.

More often than not, the problem with sci-fi stories—the reason they let audiences (i.e., me) down—comes down to the metaphor. Obviously, symbolism is one of the most important tools of the writing trade. It turns a bland conversation where people shout exactly what they’re feeling into a conversation where people shout about linoleum tiles to avoid confronting exactly what they’re feeling. It makes a moment where someone overhears a meaningless conversation into a moment that makes them realize their entire life is a lie. Symbols allow writers to express their unique views about the world.

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Action, Jackson

In a post-Matrix/Fight Club/Shyamalan world, apparently everything in the action genre is about upping the narrative ante to the point that nothing makes a goddamn bit of sense. You want to know how fucking terrible action scripts have gotten? I read a script about a group of thugs and assholes involved in some kind of… I don’t even know; it was half terrible noir, half fetishistic valentine to Japanese culture (by that, I mean it’s the type of script some pasty white guy would write after watching a bunch of anime and yakuza movies and assuming he’s an authority on Japan), centered around the kidnapping of the daughter of…someone.

See, it got confusing because the lynch-pin of the twisting and turning plot is a somewhat interesting concept involving a portable machine that allows people to swap minds. It’s like Face/Off, only with minds instead of faces and stupidity instead of goofiness. This could lead to good confusion—something intriguing and unusual, maybe even a moderately thought-provoking meditation on the nature of existence or mind vs. body vs. soul. But fuck it, it’s an action movie—let’s just keep character development to a bare minimum so it’s more surprising when one person’s body turns out to be occupied by another dude’s mind. That’s right, everyone gets the short shrift this time around, because if any character had a definable personality, we’d know the instant they swapped bodies with someone else.

But, okay, so it has thin characters and plot twists. It’s an action movie—that’s not so bad, right? Wrong. Here’s the kind of story this is: two women who bare a passing resemblance to one another get an elaborate series of plastic surgeries so they look like twins, then the main character—a male—switches bodies with one of the twins and has lesbian sex with her. For no other reason than “Whoa, man. Twins.” Remember the lack of character development? I understand the guy’s motivation, but what about the other “twin”? Narcissism? Doesn’t cut it. Past sexual abuse? Usually causes women to seek out something a little less healthy than a mirror image of themselves—maybe she abused herself as a child, but that’s meeting the writer more than halfway. It’s also the kind of story where the mind of a child is trapped in a random, unnamed body guard in the ultimate deus ex machina; the kind of story where the voiceover narration is spoken by one character whose body, it turns out, has been occupied the entire time by a different character—and even that wouldn’t be so retarded if not for other voiceover sequences where we hear the thoughts of characters’ minds in other bodies, only it’s their “real” voice, not the voice of the body they’re occupying. It’s only written this way to give us a Shyamalan-style twist, but I’ve said this a thousand times: don’t use a twist if it undoes everything that came before it. Christ!

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Heroes and Dipshits

So, Heroes is terrible. Nobody disputes that. But the plot thickened this week when creator Tim Kring spoke at a screenwriting expo and said the following:

It’s a very flawed way of telling stories on network television right now, because of the advent of the DVR and online streaming. The engine that drove [serialized TV] was you had to be in front of the TV [when it aired]. Now you can watch it when you want, where you want, how you want to watch it, and almost all of those ways are superior to watching it on air. So [watching it] on air is related to the saps and the dipshits who can’t figure out how to watch it in a superior way. [Source: IGN]

Okay. It sounds like he tried to say the current problem he and his writers are having is merging the old model of serialized content designed for a once-a-week audience—which means, among other things, excessive previouslies plus repeated scenes and poorly written exposition to remind audiences of what happened last week—with the new way of watching. He calls these new methods “superior to watching it on air,” followed immediately by the now-infamous “saps and dipshits” remark—which refers to “on air” viewers.

I won’t deny it’s horribly stated, and I also won’t deny that it’s very difficult to parse and find the meaning of what he said. It’s a series of contradictions: DVR and streaming make serial shows harder to watch, but it’s the superior way to view it? Serial shows are modeled for “on air” viewing rather than collecting a big clump of episodes and watching in a marathon over Thanksgiving weekend?

Was this merely an excuse for low ratings or an excuse for bad writing? The show would seem quite a bit better watched in a marathon. It’s having a week between episodes to let the show fester that you realize how awful it is. For the record, I TiVo the show but—by necessity of this column—I watch it each week. I guess this makes me a sap but not a dipshit? Or vice-versa?

Time‘s James Poniewozik has some pretty good insight into the ratings aspect of Kring’s comments, while the Chicago Tribune‘s Maureen Ryan spews a lot of bile about the creative direction of the show. While I don’t disagree with their points, I do feel like both of them misinterpreted Kring’s comments and overreacted. But then, I’m still puzzling over what the hell he meant by them, so I can’t blame them for ascribing meaning that I don’t see.

24: Redemption (Fox)—I wish this show’s writers would realize that 24 doesn’t work as a political thriller. In the first season, the hook that Jack Bauer had to save Senator David Palmer from an assassination attempt worked not because of the politics surrounding it—which, “first black presidential candidate” aside, were marginal at best, serving only to create a very public, very difficult to stop assassination—but because they took action-movie archetypes and made them into interesting people. I can understand why the writers shifted to Palmer’s presidency in the second season—because Dennis Haysbert and Penny Johnson-Jerald made the characters compelling, the writers anticipated audiences wanting more of them.

They weren’t wrong, but from the second season on, it’s been The Jack Bauer Show—the writers have never even come close to giving the supporting characters stories as interesting or intense as what Jack has to go through. I can understand the lack of intensity, but it’s the lack of interest that bugs me. When I stopped caring about what would happen to Palmer, Tony Almeida and Kim, I started wondering why they occupied so much of the show’s time. Other than the practical explanations—if he were the only character, Kiefer Sutherland couldn’t keep up that much intensity on a weekly basis, and most TV budgets can’t afford the type of action he finds himself embroiled in each hour—there is rarely a dramatic purpose to the other characters’ subplots. They don’t intersect or fold in on themselves the way they did in the first season, and aside from the typical “Jack calls Chloe and begs for help” scenes, he hardly even interacts with any of these characters anymore.

The CTU soap opera is a little more palatable than 24‘s increasing emphasis on White House politics. I know the show wants to tackle issues, but they just take it too seriously. Most action movies include some kind of political-potboiler element, but it’s always the MacGuffin, alluded to but rarely dwelled on or taken seriously as political issues; when 24 tries to make the MacGuffin a central storyline, it leads to a shitload of goofiness like Wayne Palmer’s truncated presidency and the goofy pseudo-coup. The fifth season contained the show’s only decent political storyline—as with the rest of the show during that glorious season, I thought the writers had learned from past mistakes and figured out the formula that made the first season so great. And then the sixth season showed me how wrong I was.

So, Sunday night gave us a fresh start with the seventh-season “prequel” “movie” Redemption, which—true to the show’s formula—gives us a compelling Jack Bauer story and a metric assload of people and problems I don’t care about. I know it’s a prelude to what’s coming in the seventh season, but notice that Bauer’s story had a complete arc: he’s in hiding in the (fictitious) African nation of Sangala, ducking a subpoena that would force him to return to the U.S. He’s preparing to flee again when a group of militants attempt to kidnap a group of children. These children attend a school run by his ex-Special Forces buddy (the awesome Robert Carlyle) and a creepy Charles Bronson lookalike, so Jack’s convinced to stay long enough to get them to the Embassy and out of Sangala. At every opportunity, he tries to ditch them, but after enough setbacks, he ends up leading them straight to the embassy. “Redemption” comes when Jack gives himself up to U.S. custody so the kids can get out of Sangala.

That’s what people in “the biz” call an “arc.” Both the story and Jack’s character growth have distinctive and complete changes over the course of the two hours. It’s not without its flaws: these militants have planned a hostile coup to assume power in the country and transform it into a dictatorship, so what about all the other people clamoring to get out? Eh, we don’t have time for them—also, they aren’t adorable little kids. Really, though, the biggest problem was the poor introduction to a variety of dull new characters in a grouping of subplots that had nothing to do with Jack’s story and had no distinctive, compelling arcs of their own. They’re what longtime 24 viewers derisively refer to as “filler”—not the best way to introduce new characters.

We got to meet the new President (Cherry Jones). I’d call her bland, but she has a grinning-so-wide-she’s-probably-evil air reminiscent of Imelda Staunton in the last Harry Potter movie. Still, she did very little but whine that Powers Boothe wouldn’t include her in his decisions regarding military support in Sangala. Meanwhile, the President’s dopey son (Eric Lively) and his super-hot girlfriend (Carly Pope) deal with his drug-addicted investment-banker friend (Kris Lemche, doing his best to channel Heathers-era Christian Slater), who’s stumbled across some information about Jon Voight doing…something for…some reason? He doesn’t know much, but we find out Voight is funding the coup in Sangala. I’d say this wraps everything up in a neat little bow, except the references to Sangala in these subplots occupy maybe 30 seconds of the 75 years these people are on the screen.

I know I’m supposed to be cautiously intrigued by these new characters, but the only two who really grabbed me were Carlyle (who died) and Hakeem Kae-Kazim as the thoroughly bad-ass colonel pursuing Jack (who presumably also died). This doesn’t bode well for the new supporting players, but like I said, the show usually makes CTU a few shades more interesting. I’ve always like Colm Feore, but he was hardly around enough to make an impression (beyond “Wow, he looks emaciated—has he been sick?”).

So there you have it: a perfect example of 24. Solid, action-packed Jack story; half-assed everything else. Can’t wait for January!

Bones (Fox)—The plane story tore me because I wanted it to have a Murder on the Orient Express-style “everyone’s a suspect” concept, but they only introduced us to a select few passengers and crew members. On the plus side, from this limited group, they did create a compelling mystery—even guessing early that somebody from the fractured family did it, they kept us guessing who did it. I also like that they brought back a conflict that hasn’t reared its head in awhile—Brennan’s secret desire to do “serious” work instead of investigating murders. I’m obviously not a big fan of the Angela/Hodgins/Roxy pseudo-triangle, but the writers wisely kept the subplot as close to the sidelines as possible. All in all, a good episode with a lot of funny material, but not as great as it’s been lately.

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—I only had one problem with this episode, which had a great concept and was funny as ever. Nina Mansker, who played “Big Bird,” is (1) obviously about 10 years older than everyone else at Tattaglia, and (2) was clearly a model of some kind. I wonder when TV producers will realize that simply making a woman wear glasses and pull their hair into a bun doesn’t make them ugly. I did like the fact that they didn’t mock her for the glasses or the bun or the hideous clothes—true to high school kids everywhere, they picked the most obvious “flaw” (her runway-model height). Despite all the good things in this episode, the ending was obvious from the moment Big Bird stepped onto the screen.

King of the Hill (Fox)—I like Bill-focused episodes because he’s the most lovably pathetic character on TV. However, Bill episodes have a tendency to stick the rest of the Rainey Street crew into the background while Bill develops alternate interests or new friends and realizes he needs his real friends to clean up his messes. This one worked a little different, playing up Bill’s pathological need to be liked, which leads to the Peggy/Dale/Minh stock-market subplot, which leads to the Hank/Bobby HDTV subplot. (As a side-note, I love it when Dale is portrayed as a “house-husband”—he’s such a nut, it makes coffee klatches with Peggy and Minh strangely incongruous.) And, of course, things go wrong when Bill realizes people are finally listening to him—and he begins to change, losing the essence of what made the others follow him around in the first place. Bill’s fundamental lack of understanding why people might like him—or, in this case, why they might be exploiting him—is one thing that makes him a compelling character.

The Office (NBC)—See how much better this show works when they concentrate more on dynamics within the office rather than romantic relationships? As I’ve said, I don’t mind Jim and Pam (especially now that it’s stopped being a Jim-Pam-Roy triangle), but dividing everyone up into relationship subgroups just doesn’t work for me. But Ryan and Kelly work, and even the triangle with Darryl made sense with this group of characters. It’s just, on some levels, impossible to believe that nearly everyone in the office would have some sort of romantic alliance. Unrequited crushes, like Toby and Pam? That works. Having them all dating or fooling around doesn’t. I was thrilled that they made the central conflict between Michael and Toby, leaving the cute Jim-Pam house subplot and the irritating “Schrute Farms” subplot on the sidelines. The show should always be like this.

Pushing Daisies (ABC)—Man, Stephen Root and Fred Willard? They have to start letting Kristin Chenoweth sing again so I don’t miss this show so much after its inevitable cancellation. (Yeah, yeah—I know ABC’s spin is that they’ve simply “opted not to order more episodes at this time,” but I think that’s the new and more cumbersome “on hiatus.”) Admittedly, the magic-show setting was a little too cutesy (not unlike the circus setting from a few weeks back), but how can I complain when the setting gave us Fred Willard and Kerri Kenney-Silver.

Supernatural (The CW)—After this episode, I’m a little irritated that this show’s going off the air for two months. They did a terrific job of expanding the current “angel vs. demon” mythology while piling new layers onto Sam and Dean (and to a lesser extent, Castiel, Uriel, Anna and Ruby). Even the “grace” thing with Anna, which could have ended up being very, very silly, worked. I don’t know where they’re going with it, but I’m hooked…and now it’s going away for the holidays. Good planning, CW.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox)—Wow. I admit I’m not always the best at predicting the course an episode will take, but this one threw me more surprises than usual.

In the first place, I assumed the future-tormenter played by the unparalleled Richard Schiff (The West Wing) would actually turn out to be sincere in his pleas that he’s just a regular old watchmaker. Anyone who has read this column before knows that I don’t trust Jesse at all, and I had a sinking suspicion she had lured Derek into the “let’s kill this future guy—together” to further solidify their connection and allow her to manipulate him. I figured she just pulled a random dude off the street for this purpose, but it went in a totally different direction. That in mind, I still don’t trust her. In fact, I find it more suspicious that they’d introduce the idea of “grays” (humans who work for the machines) in a subplot prominently featuring Jesse—to me, it reeks of foreshadowing.

The other big surprise was the outcome of last week’s speculation that Ellison would unintentionally tip his hand about what went down in Mexico, which would lead Weaver to nab Cromartie’s body. I thought this was all but confirmed with Ellison’s surprisingly believable denials. The fact that he had the body in his trunk amazed the hell out of me—first the surprise factor, then the fact that Ellison was lying. Last season, I found his character a little, er…tedious, and it seemed like this season would continue that trend. Instead, they’ve fleshed him out while making him even more of an enigma. (As a side-note, I loved Cameron’s flipping Ellison onto his back to relieve his pain.)

This isn’t quite a surprise, but I liked that the writers are getting back to addressing what’s going on in Sarah’s head. After all, the show has her name in the title—it’s gotten away from her (admittedly annoying) voiceovers, and she’s basically turned into an emotionally numb sourpuss. The symbolic but (thankfully) not weird for weird’s sake dream sequences, and her visit with Dr. Sherman, let us know that she isn’t numb—by the nature of what they have to do, she just has to put things aside and let them fester. This might assuage some of the criticism that Lena Headey doesn’t play Sarah as intense as Linda Hamilton did in T2 (which would be virtually impossible on TV schedule). I think Headey (and the writers) are hitting the best of both worlds—the middle-ground personality that we never saw in the movies because everything happened between the events of the first two. The backstory has her as a caring but troubled mother who was doing the best to “train” John for his future until she snapped. Ostensibly, the events of T2 helped her realize what she needs to do to get control over her life: she has to put everything aside for John’s sake. How long can she keep it up before she snaps again? I think this is ground the writers will address with if the show lasts long enough.

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After some dabbling, I’ve made it a policy to not post on messageboards. I’ve noticed three possible outcomes of posting as a newbie: you’re either totally ignored, flamed by longtime posters (especially if you have a dissenting opinion), or you end up saying something you think is totally innocuous but is taken way too seriously by other posters, leading to more emotional drama than you should need from people you haven’t met. But I’m getting old(er) and (more) curmudgeonly, so when I stumbled across a forum that references this old post, I got mad. And I decided I would flame, because I’m mean and petty and I was a little bored.

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Funny on the Page

I tend to go harder on comedies than I do on other genres. After 15 seconds of soul-searching, I came up with three reasons why. The first is obvious: I like to pretend that comedy is my genre, so I fiercely protect it from folks willing to pound out lazy clichés in place of actual humor. As they sit back, nodding and chuckling to themselves, I burst through their window and impale them on an indescribably deadly object. I take comedy seriously, and I’ve worked my ass off trying to assess something as subjective as humor in the most objective way possible. It all goes back to the golden age of The Simpsons: not everyone will laugh at every joke, but every single viewer will find at least one joke funny; if they don’t, they simply don’t have a sense of humor. Most “comedy” writers don’t have the ambition to utilize such field depth in their writing (admittedly, it’s a huge pain in the ass for someone to do alone), but even that’s okay as long as they work well within the limited styles of humor they choose.

After awhile, certain people—and I like to think I’m among them, although you may disagree—become so attuned to what makes humor work, it goes beyond whether or not they subjectively find something funny. Personally, I have an intense dislike of broad farces—but I can understand, objectively, how they work in terms of story structure, character development, and style of humor, and I can identify whether or not the script does well within what it wants to be. It’s the same as judging any genre. With comedy, like horror movies, you’re pretty much dealing with a bunch of subgenres that have to be considered on their own merits, whether I find them subjectively funny or not. I could say Farting Farce is a bad comedy because it doesn’t make me laugh, but that’s like saying Big Sloppy Action Movie is a terrible script because it doesn’t read like a Merchant-Ivory costume drama. I can divorce myself from what I find funny and say, “Yeah, somebody who likes farces would probably love this.” Maybe I’m wrong, but it’s a better-educated guess than you’d get from somebody with no sense of humor.

So I’ve honed that skill. I’ve done some of the worst stand-up, improv, and stage acting in the history of time, because there’s nothing like the sound of 300 people not laughing (I swiped that from probably the only insightful line Aaron Sorkin penned during his Studio 60 reign of terror, and he probably swiped it from somebody much better than he is). I’ve forced the most impartial people I could find (e.g., coworkers or classmates but not friends) to read my writing, because who cares what my friends think? Any asshole can make their friends laugh, and 90% of the time, they’re doing it with inside jokes that aren’t objectively funny. The trick is making other people laugh, which is something many “comedy” “writers” fail to do.

At long last, here’s reason number two: ignoring the issue of whether or not I find something funny, too many comedy writers tend to coast on important dramatic principles like character development and plot coherence because they think, “Hey, it’s a comedy! As long as the characters are wacky and the jokes are funny, who cares if the plot makes sense or the characters’ actions are clearly motivated?!” This philosophy is, for lack of a better word, fucktarded. Take a moment, if you like any comedy at all, to think about your favorite moments in comedies. If you’re not a chuckleheaded idiot, whatever came to mind was probably a moment that’s funny because of who the character is rather than what he or she is doing (or what’s being done to them).

The third reason is a little simpler and more personal: I’m a bitter asshole. Juno was terrible, but I only took it personally because it got made and its terrible screenplay won a fucking Oscar. I’m really, really hard on my own work, and I’d wager I probably make it worse by tinkering constantly instead of just leaving well enough alone. I’ll read through something I wrote and ask myself why I ever thought it was funny. It always shocks me—and should shock you—that when I read these “comedies,” I think, “Holy Christ, my shit is better than this.” It’s not an ego-driven thought, and I’m only pointing it out here because it illustrates how fucking bad this shit is.

That said, I have something to say to all the budding comedy writers out there: your shit isn’t funny until it’s funny on the page.

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Considering the obsessive deconstruction of the genre, slasher movies are remarkably simple. You have a disparate group of young people, mostly teenagers or college students, and a psychotic killer who borders on mythical picking them off one by one. I won’t deny the powerful subtext permeating these movies, but did we really need the dozens of movies from Wes Craven’s New Nightmare to last year’s (admittedly brilliant) Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon to beat us over the head with the feminism, the gynophobia, the antiheroes, the monsters, the Ahabs? Do we need people to delineate true slasher films from pseudo-slasher offshoots like splatter films and torture porn? Why does it matter?

Frankly, it doesn’t matter much to me now, but it probably would if I ever attempted to write a slasher script. That’s the problem with genre work: you have to understand the genre, even if your goal is to subvert or satirize… In ancient times, when I majored in music, I had a theory professor who would teach us things like symphonic form. He’d map out the structure of a symphony and then say, “Okay, now, here’s Beethoven’s third symphony—and here’s how he broke all the rules.” One day, a classmate asked, “How come we’re studying the perfect form of all this stuff, but all the memorable composers broke the rules?” His answer was a cliché, but a valid one: “You have to know the rules before you can break them.”

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Man, biopics must be hard to write. It’s one thing to write a biographical book, even with a sort of novelistic “creative nonfiction” approach. Among other things, a book with an unlimited page count can create a much richer portrait of an entire life. It can also, if done with that creative nonfiction approach, play more with the fluidity of time. An important, well-known incident in the subject’s life can spur remembrances of insignificant, unknown moments that might have led to the event. Biopics are almost always framed with a flashback structure, but cinematic flashbacks can (and often do) make things cumbersome. They pose the question, “What led to this moment?” but it takes anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours to answer the question. In a book, it doesn’t have to be more than a paragraph or two. “Remember this? It reminded her of that.” The end.

Biopics have the more difficult task of trying to encompass a person’s entire existence into feature length. I had similar problems with The Final Cut, but at least a screenwriter can just take an overview of a life and condense it down in some way or another. But if someone’s led a ridiculously eventful life, you don’t have many options in crafting a screenplay. As I see it, you can either try to dramatize each of these moments, or you can concentrate on one important moment and try to use that as an emblem of the full life.

The former strategy runs the risk of information overload, with no dramatic thrust, so it feels like we’re watching a series of scenes rather than a story; at worst, it makes us feel like we never get to know the subject despite it being a movie about the subject. I felt this way about recent critical darlings Ray and Walk the Line—good performances aside, both felt more like watching a greatest-moments reel than a dramatic story. The latter strategy tends to have a solid story, but it runs the risk of not even qualifying as a biopic; it also might still leave the central character as an enigma because the filmmakers assume we can fill in our own blanks about the subject’s life before or after the incident in question. I had this problem with Capote, which actually works better as a biopic of In Cold Blood than Truman Capote, who remains a mystery until some painfully on-the-nose dialogue near the end (despite giving us some insight into the character, the clumsy handling makes the movie worse, not better). Becoming Jane takes this same general idea while making a significantly better (albeit not great) movie by concentrating on her early romantic life and illustrating how it impacted her writing.

The only recent biopic I’ve liked as a pure movie experience was La vie en rose. Although it spans the bulk of her life, it never feels like it’s breezily moving from one moment to the next without taking the time to get into the character’s head and let us understand her. It also plays with time in ways that are more effective than the standard “present-day reflections on an eventful life”—the filmmakers wisely make the structure as frazzled and frenetic as Piaf’s life/mind. Yet, it plays so loose with Édith Piaf’s life, it barely qualifies as a biopic and would be better off as a fiction inspired by Piaf.

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Good News and Confusing (Possibly Bad) News

The good: after 13 seasons, Fox has decided to pull the plug on King of the Hill. Again. Ratings aren’t down, the show’s writing is as strong as ever; Fox just wants to make room for yet another terrible Seth MacFarlane show. Good decision, Fox! Because American Dad‘s ratings aren’t low enough, they apparently want to see how close one of their Sunday animated shows can get to the bottom of the Nielsens and still survive. But there is actual good news here: ABC has mentioned that, if Fox doesn’t change its mind, they’ll pick the show up, just like they did with Scrubs. ABC doesn’t seem to mind being the dumping ground of other networks’ sitcoms, which is probably for the best. With the exception of 2006’s underrated Sons and Daughters, ABC hasn’t developed a good sitcom since Roseanne.

The confusing and possibly bad news: ABC’s funniest show, Pushing Daisies, is on the chopping block, along with Dirty Sexy Money and their Life on Mars remake. The network hasn’t confirmed any cancellations, but they released a midseason schedule with some noticeable absences. The rumor mill is abuzz with the notion that the three shows will be capped at 13-episode seasons and may return in the fall, introducing a new strategy of two shortened seasons in the fall and winter, rather than one long, rerun-packed season from September to May. Another rumor: this week’s Pushing Daisies is incredibly important, because if it doesn’t show an exponential increase in viewership, ABC will likely cancel it.

Now, I’ve leveled some legitimate criticism at Pushing Daisies before, but this season has shown a marked improvement. The ratings don’t quite match the show’s early success, but they’re steadily climbing. Maybe not as quickly as ABC would like, but it’s not exactly tanking. I’m finally liking this show well enough to make it appointment television, so I feel bad that ABC’s torpedoing it. On the other hand, as I’ve mentioned, the shaky quality of the first season drove a lot of viewers away (justifiably), which is something I have to pin on the writers, not the network. It’s not the network’s fault they can’t convince audiences the show is now better than the first few episodes of the first season.

Bones (Fox)—I liked Eugene Byrd’s earlier appearances well enough, but he didn’t make a big impression on me until this week. After the rotating group of Zack replacements, it occurred to me that somebody like Dr. Clark Edison is exactly what the Jeffersonian needs: a bitter straight man who just wants to work, dammit. In the first season, Dr. Goodman had this characteristic, so naturally they’d can him in favor of Dr. Saroyan, who is both a gossip and a woman who has a romantic past with Booth. Bones isn’t nearly as soap operatic as it could be, but it could use a character who is first irritated by their unprofessional behavior, then slowly gets sucked in.

My only minor nitpick—Edison made no complaints about going to Booth’s birthday party. Now, I’ve worked a few jobs where I haven’t gotten along with coworkers and tried my damndest to keep out of the personal drama. The easiest way to do that is to avoid any outside-of-work social functions. I know they’re supposed to build team camaraderie, but you know what? I’m not getting paid, it has nothing to do with the work—I’m not going to go. Edison should feel the same way, so it surprised me that they didn’t even have a throwaway crack about his annoyance.

Brendan Fehr from CSI: Miami and Roswell guested as Booth’s brother. I don’t think we’ve gotten quite so in-depth on Booth’s character since Stephen Fry stopped appearing as his court-appointed shrink, so that was refreshing. It also allowed Booth and Brennan to acknowledge their mutual feelings without actually acknowledging them—this is “will they or won’t they?” at its best, allowing characters to confront their feelings separately, then deny them while they’re together. But, as always, a plea to Bones writers: pick “they won’t.” Please.

Yet another fun guest star: The Cosby Show‘s Joseph C. Phillips, who deserves a better career than what he has. I don’t know, maybe he’s doing a lot of fulfilling theatre work, but he’s a good actor who could have been a major star. I blame Lisa Bonet for his lack of film and television success.

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW)—I love variations on a theme. Everybody Hates Chris‘ writers are great because, more often than not, they take classic sitcom plots (kid sneaks out, sees something he shouldn’t have, is torn between getting in trouble and doing the right thing) and put a unique spin on it. What could have been an obvious plot—Chris confesses what he knows and his parents find out—gets turned upside down because his fear of snitching (not just for the parental repercussions) causes him to pay Jerome to confess for him, which gets Jerome arrested.

The show also went one better than usual by giving everyone else either entertaining subplots or funny character moments—Julius and Rochelle versus Show Dogs (a Cats spoof), Tanya’s bribery and Drew’s absurd quest to get on That’s Incredible! Even Greg, who’s been underused this season, had a couple of great scenes with Chris.

King of the Hill (Fox)—This is classic King of the Hill, a full-on satirical assault of the flawed and failed “No Child Left Behind” program. Forget The Wire‘s gritty, dyspeptic realism—nothing slices through the heart of an issue like sardonic mockery. In this episode, Bobby (among other Tom Landry notables) is stuck in a “special-needs” class so the school can raise their test scores and get more funding.

Over the past few years, they’ve developed Principal Moss as a character who both shies away from conflict and has a misguided devious streak (but only when it has to do with his school’s bottom line). Both of these aspects drove this week’s story, which focuses on the Hills but really tells the story of Moss’s downfall. In typical King of the Hill fashion, Moss is never portrayed as a truly bad guy. He’s just doing what he has to within a broken system, and he’s punished for it, seen selling “J-Bone” steaks at the end of the episode. I also love that, when he finally embraces Hank’s plan to just make the “special” kids work hard and study, the school’s average scores still go down. Ironies like that separate King of the Hill from the average sitcom.

The Office (NBC)—No more triangles! Seriously! (Okay, I like Kelly, Ryan, and Darryl.)

Supernatural (The CW)—Here’s my problem: I liked Katie Cassidy. She could handle the comedy-to-drama-to-horror tightrope as well as Ackles or Padalecki, without quite being as good as either of them. She fit the show, she fit the part of Ruby (or, at least, made it her own) and for her trouble, the writers killed off the actress but not the character. The character has returned in the form of Genevieve Cortese, and no amount of pouty stares and full-backal nudity will convince me that she’s any good. I don’t want to sound harsh, and maybe Cortese would be fine (or, at least, unremarkable) in another role. However, Cassidy and Cortese playing the same role—it’s a night and day difference.

I wasn’t exactly sold on Cortese in earlier Ruby appearances, but I let it slide since she was barely in the episodes. This week, however, concentrated pretty fully on What Happened to Sam, which means explaining What Happened to Ruby. The Cortese incarnation of the character actually has a rather interesting backstory, but she’s still just…not very impressive. Maybe she’ll improve, but in my mind, it’s like betting against a sure-thing because maybe the underdog will win this time.

As for the content of the episode itself—well, aside from Cortese dragging it down, it was pretty good. They’ve broken away from the light, funny mold of the past few weeks, which isn’t a bad thing. True to the show’s format, this week takes on the urban myth of the prophet-like folks who claim they can eavesdrop on angels. Sam and Dean end up seeking out a girl who knows all about them—because, since the day Dean was released from hell, she’s heard endless angel conversations about the upcoming war. Some demons may or may not be in pursuit, trying to use “Radio Girl” to find out what the angels have planned… Or maybe the demons are just Castiel and Uriel, who rush in just before the “To Be Continued…” and announce their intention to kill her.

I know I praised Robert Wisdom during his first appearance, but it’s time to lavish praise on Misha Collins. His performance kind of snuck up on me, but last week I started noticing how good he is—and this week, even though he was hardly in the episode, the pure scary bad-assiness of his performance made me realize this guy is great. He’s been around the block, but I’ve never really committed his name to memory. Now, he’s on my radar. I hope Supernatural doesn’t make the same mistakes they made with Katie Cassidy.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox)—Attention, rabid Sarah Connor naysayers: Cromartie isn’t dead!

I’ve read so many people, from professional bloggers to actual journalists to fans on message boards bitching about how lame Cromartie’s death is. He’s a goddamn terminator, and last time I checked, we did not see him get doused in phosphate or lured into a tarpit. The obvious speculation is that naïve/goofy Ellison will inadvertently lead Catherine Weaver to the body, not realizing this is a Bad Thing.

I liked this episode a lot—the “[Character Name’s Story]” structuring was nifty, they’ve finally gone back to making John feel like a real (if bratty and troubled) teenager, John’s finally brought Riley in on the secrets (sort of), each of the characters had some nice moments to shine. I even liked the heavy-handed Christ imagery with Cromartie at the end. (And hey, that’s likely a not-so-subtle implication of Cromartie’s imminent resurrection.) Because I’ve continued to like this show—in fact, I’ll argue it’s improved steadily from day one, aside from a few shaky elements (notably Shirley Manson, whose awkward performance has grown on me)—I feel like I’m becoming defensive after reading others’ reactions. Although I’m a fan of dissenting opinion, I don’t want to come across like a whiner every week, so hey, I’ll just stop trolling the message boards.

(Also, I have to note that it was a little jarring to see that they filmed this episode in the same generic backlot Mexican town so memorably utilized on Arrested Development. Way to plant, Ann!)

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The Dollhouse Murder

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.

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The Danish Girl

Author: Lucinda Coxon

Genre: Drama/Historical

Storyline: 7

Dialogue: 7

Characterization: 5

Writer’s Potential: 7

Jump to: [Synopsis] [Comments]




In the late 1920s, a woman suffers as her husband struggles with his gender identity.


Copenhagen, 1928. GRETA WAUD examines some of her husband’s paintings at an art gallery, eavesdropping on admirers of his works. EINAR WEGENER, the husband in question, stands across the room, being lavished with attention from the art community. Greta goes to an art-supply store, where the clerk chats with her about a commission to paint Fonnesbech, a department store owner. She comes home, and Einar insists on a midday love session. Greta gets dressed up, with Einar helping to fix her make-up, to go see RASMUSSEN, a successful art dealer. She brings her portfolio, but Rasmussen finds the work boring. He patronizes her by saying that if she finds the right material, she may succeed.

Greta comes home, livid. She blames Einar for setting up the appointment to begin with. Greta forces a favor out of Einar. She has to do a painting of friend/opera star ANNA, but she’s so behind on her portrait commissions that she can’t wait for Anna to squeeze in a sitting. She makes Einar put on some of Anna’s costume clothing. Despite his obvious discomfort with this, she dresses him up, then starts to apply make-up, until Einar looks like a lovely, coquettish young woman. Greta and Einar watch Anna performed, amazed by the level of emotion she puts into her work. She’s similarly amazed by Einar’s ability to do the same—Greta just doesn’t put that level of herself into the paintings. She goes to do another commission, of Fonnesbech’s horse, and Einar admires the sketches—they’re better than much of what she’s done.

Einar doesn’t want to go to another gallery opening because he always feels he’s putting on a false face. Greta jokingly suggests actually putting on a false face. She dresses him up as a girl again and sketches him. Suddenly, the sketches turn to paintings—dozens of paintings, each better than the last. They attend an artists’ ball with Einar dressed as “Lili,” a “woman” they claim is Einar’s cousin. “Lili” stumbles on HENRIK SENDAHL, a fellow artist who takes Einar as a real woman. They flirt, and Einar is a little amused by the intensity. Greta stumbles across Henrik and “Lili” just as things get a little hot and heavy. She’s dumbfounded but before she can say anything, a fountain of blood streams from “Lili”‘s nose and they have to rush her away. Later, Einar lounges as if nothing happened. He asks Greta if Lili had fun.

A few days later, Greta and Einar have a more in-depth conversation about “Lili,” in which he insists she’s a real person, separate from him. She’s disturbed. Claiming to see Rasmussen, Einar sneaks off to Anna’s dressing room and becomes “Lili.” He goes on a date with Henrik. Greta’s suspicious but has no proof. She begins to take out her emotions in her work. She meets with Rasmussen, showing her the new “Lili” series. He still doesn’t like them—until he stumbles across the latest one, in which Lili is falling back into the arms of blond man, covered in blood. He believes he can find a market for paintings like these. Greta admits she has a whole series of them at her studio.

“Lili” visits Henrik again, but Henrik identifies “her” as Einar and admits he’s a homosexual. Scared and confused, “Lili” runs from his apartment. “Lili” returns home to Greta, crying. “She” admits to seeing Henrik, which makes Greta recoil. When Einar normalizes, they agree to go to a doctor, HEXLER, who assesses Einar as possibly having a tumor. They check him out with an X-ray and find nothing, so Hexler diagnoses him as psychopathic and recommends institutionalization. Meanwhile, Rasmussen has sold Greta’s “Lili” portraits to a dealer in Paris. Greta decides she and Einar should flee to France to avoid the forced institutionalization of Einar. Greta becomes the toast of the town, but Einar has no motivation to continue his work. He’s acting like a different person—not quite “Lili” but not himself, either.

Greta sees HANS AXGIL, an art-dealing Dane living in France who was a childhood friend of Einar. She pleads to him for help, and he reluctantly agrees, mainly a result of his attraction for Greta. Greta brings up a new dealer to Einar, who’s unenthusiastic since he hasn’t been producing. Greta insists that they meet him for dinner, but on the night, Einar never shows up. Greta and Hans end up having a flirt-riddled dinner. Greta invites Hans to the apartment to see Einar, but when they get there—it’s “Lili.” Greta is horrified but tries to create the impression that “Lili” is, indeed, a separate person. “Lili” apologizes for Einar not being available. That night, Einar is “half-Lili,” and he begs Greta for a nightdress. Visibly uncomfortable, Greta refuses, but Einar insists that when he dreams, they’re Lili’s.

The next day, Greta spills Einar’s secret to Hans, pleading for help. She comes home to find “Lili” has gone on a shopping spree. “She” is excited because “she” can sit for Greta again. Greta decides to take advantage of the bad situation by painting “Lili” some more. Greta meets Hans at a show of “Lili” paintings. Hans ups the flirtation ante, but Greta demures, reminding Hans that she’s still Einar’s wife. He accepts but immediately stops paying attention to her, so Greta storms out of the gallery. After going home to find “Lili” still there and unable to provide her comfort, Greta meets with Hans again. They make love.

When Anna comes to Paris for a touring production, she tells Greta that Einar has to see someone—a specialist. After what happened with Hexler, Greta is gun-shy but Greta believes the mental problems of a man believing he’s a woman are actually causing physical problems—he’s losing weight, among other things. Greta returns to find Einar returned to semi-normal. He promises he’ll find a solution to the problem. Einar goes to see Hans, who helps set him up with a variety of doctors. The diagnoses range from homosexuality to insanity, until he finds a university professor, BOLK, who both finds Einar’s case interesting and has seen symptoms like this before. Bolk mentions a new and dangerous procedure to remove Einar’s genitalia and replace them with that of a female. The only catch—nobody’s done it before. The previous man Bolk mentioned backed out of the surgery at the last minute. Einar believes that, with “Lili” taking over and getting stronger, this is his only hope. Einar says his goodbyes to Greta and Hans.

“Lili” goes to Dresden to undergo the first procedure, removal of the genitals. After considering it for a long time, Greta decides to go out of sympathy, just as Hans tells her about a big gallery wanting to show the Lili paintings. It’s better if she goes to the opening, but Greta goes to Dresden instead. She’s horrified by what she sees—a distraught “Lili” in horrible physical condition, forced still by weighted sandbags. Bolk tries to console her, but Greta is overcome. Nonetheless, she decides to remain strong by “Lili”‘s side.

A month later, “Lili” has regained some strength and is almost ready for discharge. Anticipating this, Greta goes to Copenhagen to put their old apartment back in order. She confesses to Anna her concern—the idea of two unmarried women living together is a little much, especially if anyone knows the truth about Einar. Greta cares for “Lili,” who requires a great deal of regulated medications. “Lili” gets a job at Fonnesbech’s department store. Greta wants “Lili” to start painting, but “she” isn’t interested. Greta realizes “Lili” is overtaxing herself and not taking her meds properly. One day, Greta turns a corner to find Henrik and “Lili” walking arm in arm. She feels betrayed and confused, but “Lili” insists they’re just friends—Henrik is a homosexual and has no interest in women. “Lili” announces she’s going back to Dresden for phase two of the operation, the addition of a vagina. Greta is afraid—this procedure is infinitely more dangerous.

Nonetheless, Greta stands by “Lili” as “she” returns to Dresden. “Lili” confesses that Greta has provided great emotional support during this ordeal. Greta goes to a hotel in the city, where it turns out Hans has come to offer his own emotional support to Greta. Bolk contacts Greta. “Lili” lost a lot of blood during the operation and is suffering from an intense fever they’re struggling to control. She’s also had some unusual bleeding, so Bolk performed some investigative surgery—with “Lili”‘s consent—and discovered a pair of ovaries buried in “her” intestines. Turns out, “she” was a woman—sort of. Later, Greta and Hans visit “Lili.” “She” has cooled down and looks a bit more peaceful but still isn’t out of the woods. “Lili” awakens and tells Greta “she” had a wonderful dream—“she” was a newborn baby, cradled in “her” mother’s arms, and “her” mother called her Lili. “Lili” drifts into unconsciousness or perhaps death, a look of bliss on “her” face.

Greta accompanies Hans to his mansion in Bluetooth, where Einar and “Lili” grew up. They look at the sea, which reminds a distraught Greta of the paintings of Einar’s that she was looking at in the opening scene.


This is an interesting but flawed fact-based story. It has an interesting storyline and the writer does a nice job of evoking the period and culture of late-’20s Europe. Where it stumbles, strangely enough, is in its presentation from Greta’s point of view. Greta internalizes every reaction to the chaos unfolding around her. While this might be more realistic, it does not make her a compelling character. Because it’s hard to gauge what she’s thinking or why she does the things she does, I have to wonder why the writer chose to tell her story rather than Einar/”Lili”‘s.

Because Greta never makes much of an attempt to understand what Einar is going through, the audience doesn’t truly understand what he’s going through. This unusual story doesn’t portray the typical “woman trapped in a man’s body” concept; rather, it takes the more interesting approach of having a man develop a split personality and slowly succumb to this separate, female identity, all the while claiming he’s not insane. Honestly, that’s the definition of insanity, and the fact that we never get to know him through Greta’s perspective makes it harder to appreciate or empathize with his struggle. He merely comes across as both crazy and a bit selfish, which turns Greta into a bland codependent.

Greta should fight harder to “keep” Einar, and perhaps we should see more of Einar struggling to hold on to his masculine identity. This is where the conflict of the story lies, not in Greta’s hard-to-read internal conflict over Einar’s behavior. There are brief allusions to Einar’s struggles in a few scenes, but that all seems to happen offscreen as the writer jumps ahead months and years. What we see is Einar folding like a cheap card table, while Greta supports the drastic changes. The reasons for their behavior are not clear, making the whole story more frustrating than it needs to be.

Because the story follows Greta, I assume the writer wants to target women with this story. The gender-reassignment subject matter might cause some controversy and build a slightly larger audience.

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