The new fall season is upon us, with the return of Bones, and the premieres of cable shows Raising the Bar and Sons of Anarchy. Me? I think of cable as a summer venue, so cable shows announcing themselves in fall or midseason makes me a little uncomfortable. Not for fear of them occupying too much time—this fall, very little appeals to me, and that includes a plethora of returning shows. Some of them (Pushing Daisies, Dirty Sexy Money) I will watch, with the attentive eye of a ruthless cop who’s just waiting for his drug-addicted, petty-criminal cousin to slip up; others (House, My Name Is Earl), I’ve already discarded in my personal trash bin of failed dreams and wasted time.
Bones (Fox)—With a big two-hour premiere set mostly on location in London, it appears Fox considers Bones a hit (finally?). Or maybe they just spent the entire season’s budget, and we’ll be left with a series of episodes in which Booth and the squints get trapped in the Jeffersonian. It’s like how every year the terrorists on 24 infiltrate CTU and hold everyone captive for five straight hours so they can afford the big explosions and helicopter chases in the season finale.
Anyway, I hate to sound like a negative nelly, but the premiere—while compelling in the usual way—frustrated me a little bit for concentrating way, way, way too much on the forced “will they or won’t they?” pseudo-relationship between Brennan and Booth. Normally, I don’t mind brief flirtations with this, but the writers really laid it on thick in this premiere. And here’s the thing: David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel do have chemistry, but it’s like…sibling chemistry. They are hilarious together, as friends. As lovers, it’ll be like every single show that went to shit after the two stars hooked up. So the writers are prolonging what they seem to think is inevitable, but it’s evitable. Very, very evitable. Don’t go there, Bones writers. Keep them colleagues and friends. Brennan is like Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, learning to understand humanity by her interactions with Booth and these crimes. So I know there was that one where Data gets “drunk” and does it with Tasha Yar, but they killed her off, like, three episodes later, so it was not exactly an epic love.
If you think that’s the only rant, think again. Attention, Bones writers: for a show loaded with pithy pop-psychology jabbering (related mini-rant: use John Francis Daley in every scene, if possible—he’s a great addition to the show), what the hell was up with that subplot with Angela, Hodgins and Angela’s mystery husband? I can deal with Saroyan jumping his bones (multilayered pun intended), but that whole “fight for her honor”/”I’m bailing on this engagement because you obviously don’t trust me” thing—what a bunch of bullshit. Angela got mad at Saroyan because it’s a shitty thing for a friend to do. What kind of friend is like, “Oh dude, I slept with your ex-husband, and it was awesome,” and expects the friend to be cool with that? Even with the “history” of Angela’s odd relationship with her husband, there’s no reason for Angela to just roll over and be happy, and there’s every reason in the world for Hodgins to feel a tinge of jealousy—it has something to do with trust, but not in a significant, “I don’t trust you one iota” way. The execution of this subplot didn’t work at all.
But, um…the crime subplot was pretty good, as was the random newbie who bailed because of the over-the-top soap-opera nature of the squints. Well played, Bones.
Mad Men (AMC)—I chided Mad Men for making Duck into an unsympathetic, one-dimensional “villain” for Don, in stark contrast to this show’s usual fully realized, multidimensional characters. Now, they’ve finally ladled on some real development—but they’ve forced me to absolutely hate him. I know I was supposed to feel, in some way or another, sorry for his struggle, but the only people I have less sympathy for than drunks are drunks who abandon their dogs to go tie one on. I’m sure it was hard to be a full-blown alcoholic in the ’60s, especially working at Sterling-Cooper, but I don’t care what era you’re in: you don’t bail on your dog. Come on!
Now that that‘s out of the way… I love seeing the way Peggy progresses. I know many of these characters have taken on archetypal roles, but I guess I didn’t see Peggy as emblematic of the rise of feminism. In retrospect, it seems so obvious, but I didn’t see it coming until last week, and now—wow, she’s really learning. The great thing about this progression is that it feels natural, but they don’t quite beat us over the head with any of it. Okay, maybe the whole Playtex thing could have been subtler, but it all sort of worked to illustrate the way Peggy’s environment is forming the woman she’s becoming. I’d give large sums of money to see the expression on her sister’s face if she had seen Peggy walking into that strip club. Good times!
The Middleman (ABC Family)—Well, this may have been The Middleman‘s last episode, so I guess we can take comfort that it was a good one. References abound, as usual, most notably Escape from New York. The alternate universe’s Snake Plissken-looking Middleman might have been the series’ funniest sight gag to date, but what really got to me is the way Wendy learned the value of her real-universe friends from this experience. Here, she sees them all at their absolute worst, but she understands that there’s some kind of inherent, a priori goodness in them—they’ve all been wounded by their experiences, but deep down, they’re the same people she knew.
One thing I questioned—and this is one of the many things that makes me hope the show gets renewed—was the fall of Manservant Neville in the alternate timeline. There, Evil Wendy froze him because he intended to change the company into something good and positive. So, does that mean that at the same time, in Real Wendy’s universe, the kind and benevolent Manservant Neville turned evil? They didn’t portray this like a cliffhanger, but it became one in my mind.
ABC Family, renew this show or I will dedicate long-winded special-edition columns to libel Kyle XY, GRΣΣK and The Secret Life of an American Teenager.
Monk (USA)—Monk‘s 100th episode was fun, with some nice trips down Memory Lane and a spectacularly over-the-top guest appearance from Will & Grace‘s Eric McCormack, but it didn’t meet the expectations the show has forced me to have with its late-in-the-game quality improvement. I understand that the mystery took a backseat to the retrospective idea, which is fine. Why not just allow the In Focus mystery be the week’s mystery, instead of double-layering it with Monk trying to re-solve the solved case? It seemed like it spread the story too thin, when I would have been more than happy watching “In Focus” for an hour instead of giving us the bookends with everybody gathered for the premiere. Still, a fun episode.
Psych (USA)—I give the writers credit for not completely swiping the plot of Point Break, although inexplicable identity theft (one assumes to steal money/credit) comes about as close as one can without actually involving surfing. I can’t get too frustrated with this show, because it’s still laugh-out-loud funny, but the first two seasons had some pretty solid mysteries. This season has felt like nothing more than joke plots and movie spoofs, which is fine—they just took an unexpected turn, and I have to give a pop-culture-laden show like this a hard time for ripping off Point Break without even making a glib reference to it.
Raising the Bar (TNT)—I feel like I have to take on a defensive position after seeing a few other reviews of this show. Some were flat-out negative, but most of them just argued that this show redefines mediocrity and isn’t worth the time when there are better shows out there. I’ll agree that it won’t exactly spark a TV revolution whose lasting effects will still reverberate decades later (like Steven Bochco’s Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law), but it’s certainly not a “pass,” either.
All of this is coming from somebody who pretty much hates legal shows, all of which play courtroom scenes as over-the-top melodrama and either paint lawyers as corrupt and contemptible or insightful and messianic. The only legal series I’ve enjoyed was The WB’s comically short-lived Just Legal, effectively an action-comedy starring Don Johnson (Miami Vice) as a grizzled, bottom-feeding lawyer and Jay Baruchel (Undeclared) as an idealistic legal prodigy who can’t get a job anywhere else.
It might be a bad omen to compare Raising the Bar to a show that lasted two weeks on The WB*, but they have a lot of common ground that appeals to me. Both shows tackle this insane idea that, in this particular arena, everybody knows everybody else. Raising the Bar‘s young attorneys all went to law school together, and now they’re on opposite sides. Jane Kaczmarek, as a public-defender-turned-embittered-judge, provides the Don Johnson-style crustiness, and the conflict between characters is rooted in the same themes Just Legal tackled: how do you separate personal from professional, and how do you try a case fairly in a system where everybody knows everybody else? The lawyers know the judges’ strengths and weaknesses, the judges form grudges against attorneys based on earlier cases, the law-school buddies find themselves lashing out because they’re on opposing sides of the same case. Not exactly an enviable career.
Raising the Bar has some weak spots, don’t get me wrong. Some of the aesthetic choices are a little iffy (the idea of showing empty courtrooms and offices, then dissolving to populated versions of the same settings, did nothing but make me think of how awesome a show about ghost lawyers would be), and… I don’t know, part of me thinks this is too mean to even say, but the sets looked really cheap in HD. But think about it: I have to dig pretty hard to criticize when all I have is, “The sets on a low-budget cable show look cheap.”
I have to dig less deep to crush the show’s real weak link: I don’t know if it’s the actress or character, but Melissa Sagemiller is not exactly selling her role. Shaggy-haired Zack Morris delivers “credible attorney” better than I ever could have imagined, and the other cast members—some of whom I haven’t seen before—did equally decent-to-admirable work. Sagemiller stuck out big-time, and shoving her into a “conflict of interest” relationship Mark-Paul Gosselaar doesn’t help. I hope this doesn’t last, because Raising the Bar has a lot of potential, and I hate to say it, but it would have a lot more without her.
Sons of Anarchy (FX)—I find it a little difficult to describe how I feel about this show, because it’s designed as a serial show and didn’t have much in the way of traditional dramatic structure—not that I’m calling that a bad thing. Rather, the progress from beginning to end only gave us resolutions of the kind that leave us wondering what will happen next week. Which is all well and good, but it’s less like Bones than Rescue Me. The question I have, right now, is: will this unfold like Rescue Me, having several good seasons before becoming a bit of a trainwreck, or will it be more like The Wire, telling great stories with a rich sense of place and character and coming and going without a visible decline in quality?
The series I hear it most often compared to is The Sopranos—mostly in the form of “Sopranos on motorcycles”-type comparisons. As an rabid, unabashed hater of The Sopranos, I can only say, “I hope that’s not what it becomes.” For other non-fans of The Sopranos, let me offer a few morsels explaining what I saw in Sons of Anarchy that gives it heft without leaving the HBO hit’s distinctive residue of tedium and pomposity. It offers something truly unique in the television landscape: has there ever been a weekly series that really dug into biker culture? Sons of Anarchy goes one better than that by having Jacks (Charlie Hunnam, another Undeclared alum) uncover his deceased father’s hippie manifesto, setting the stage for a battle between modern pragmatism and outdated idealism. The series may not be realistic, but like The Wire, it gives us vivid characters in a setting that makes it believable. The sheer number of “Hey! It’s that guy!” character actors populating the supporting roles gives the show a feeling of density that could be a slippery slope—it may all end up being surface gloss.
I’d like to think a little better of it. Aside from a few missteps—my personal aversion to anything hypodermic-related is only one of the things that makes me say Jacks’ pregnant, heroin-addicted ex-wife was an extraneous character and subplot—Sons of Anarchy sucked me into its universe and into its primary conflicts: Jacks versus Clay (Ron Perlman), with Gemma (Katey Segal) playing both sides like a twisted hybrid of Gertrude and Lady Macbeth. All of this, in 75 minutes, proved more compelling than the first 10 hours of The Sopranos. Whether or not it will all pay off remains to be seen, but I urge fans of ultra-depressing crime soaps to check this out. FX reruns the premiere on Sunday after The Shield.
*The WB burned off the nine or so remaining episodes late in the summer of 2006, and I assure you guys, you don’t know what you missed.