John Walker's Electronic House

What To Think About Television

by on Sep.25, 2006, under The Rest

The Fall season in the Americas is now well under way, and most of the new shows have either aired their pilot, or been so careless as to distribute it widely across the internet, and so, as mentioned before, I think I’ll tell you what to think about them.

Brothers And Sisters – ABC

Hatefully vapid ‘drama’ featuring a slightly less skeletal Calista Flockhart as one of a number of siblings, parented by wheel-em-out stalwarts Sally Field and Tom Skerritt. Two-thirds of the way through and it was still not clear why anyone should be in the least bit interested in this upper-middle class family and their soapish relationship cliches. Would you believe it – one of the sons is a young and carefree dude who brings random girls home! Another is conservative and withdrawn and never brings girls home. There’s a couple with their marriage under strain, and Flockhart’s genius twist is that she’s a right-wing radio host, while her parents are passionate liberals! But of course unlike every right-wing radio host, Flockhart is sweet and friendly, but gosh-darn it, she will have those Republican views… Ann Coulter she is not, and clearly should have been were this show to have had any balls. It so desperately begs you to like everyone despite their Distinctive Character Trait(tm) that every character is hollow and vile. The other thing that happens two-thirds of the way in, nano-seconds after the adult siblings discuss how their parents are these impossibly wonderful role models, is Skerritt answering the phone and then angrily whispering, “How dare you call me here at home!” Two-thirds of the way through I turned it off.

The Class – CBS

Like Happy Hour below, The Class is a post-How I Met Your Mother Sitcom, using the one-camera-on-film device, rather than open-fronted sets in front of a live studio audience. Which is a bit odd, since all the open-fronted sets seem designed to accomodate a live studio audience. The gimmick, because you have to have a gimmick to survive a pitch meeting, is a junior high class getting back together for a reunion party now they’re in their mid 20s. Gosh, how everyone’s changed! Into a series of awkward personality stereotypes. But their sanitised Network TV versions, of course. So there’s the suicidal guy, about to overdose on pills, but wouldjabelieveit, the phone rings just in time – wacky old suicide, eh? There’s the goth girl, but, you know, not that goth because that wouldn’t be all family fun.

It’s not too horrific, but it really needs to kick into gear to survive a single season’s run. It’s a sad sign of this year’s sitcom set, failing to innovate or do anything brave, but rather find an excuse to be yet another 20-something aimless relationship comedy that we’ve seen so many times before.

Faceless – Fox

I’ll have to get back to you on this. I’m not sure if it was the painkillers, or if it is utterly impossible to follow, but it was extremely boring GRR MAN ANGRY rubbish starring idiotic Sean Bean.

Happy Hour – Fox

Oh dear, it’s not starting out very well. It does get better. It’s not often that I’ll give up on a 22 minute sitcom before at least the end of the second episode. The Class is getting another chance based on this. But despite having two episodes of Happy Hour to watch, I couldn’t suffer through all of the first. The most blatent attempt by Fox to mimic NBC’s surprise success of last year, the sweet How I Met Your Mother, it’s a spitefully cynical soulless clone. There’s a category of sitcom I choose to call “Unlocked Front Door Sitcoms”. While not necessarily a sign of poor quality, it is always a warning. We could forgive Friends (yes, I know you couldn’t, because you’re a pompous arse who never watched it in the first five years) as they were all intimately close. But when complete strangers feel perfectly happy to march in and out of each others ludicrously huge appartments without knocking, you know the writers aren’t thinking. Nor indeed are they trying in Happy Hour, which cobbles together a kooky cast by a seemingly random series of events, none of whom are vaguely likeable, and all of whom are awful misunderstandings of what makes the How I Met Your Mother cast so fun. (Which is in no small part the names Alyson Hannigan and Neil Patrick Harris).

As is now the trend, it’s a one camera show, shot on film, with the worryingly more common addition of laughter afterwards, and this merits further comment. It’s painful to realise how network execs have completely missed what the recent successful film-shot sitcoms did so well: they removed the audience. Both the consistently wonderful Scrubs, and the always funny My Name Is Earl, go without guiding laughter in order to be able to do a lot more with their camera work. Wanting the latter, but too afraid to do the former, networks have resorted to laying the audience on afterward, whether by screenings or canned. The result is disjointed and artificial. HIMYM just gets away with this by the surprising technique of having the audience volume set remarkably low. Happy Hour does not, and it’s a constant, offensive assault, especially considering the audience has nothing to laugh about.

Heroes – NBC

Hurrah! A good one! Premise: regular people start discovering they have super powers. It could have gone so very wrong. It doesn’t, and I think mostly thanks to the deeply dark and morose tone.

While some have accused it of being slow to start, I’d completely disagree and observe that it’s careful and doesn’t need to rush. It would have been very tempting to start throwing amazing powers at the audience, presented by beautiful people with puffed chests and American flags on their socks. Instead you have a miserable heroin addict unwillingly painting apocolyptic psychic visions, a popular girl at highschool terrified that her discovered invincibility might make her stand out from the crowd, the single mother in debt to the mob whose reflection has a different personality to hers… a very bad one. There’s some slightly more positive emotions related to the flying man, but it’s impossible to discuss the situation without ruining the pilot. The only really happy character is the cubicle worker in Hong Kong who realises the desired power of every trapped and bored worker – by focusing on the clock as hard as he can, he can rewind time. With an abundance of sci-fi geekery, he realises that controlling time means he’s on the way to controlling space, and that leads to exciting times.

Thanks to Lost, which I’ve never seen and don’t intend to – the few minutes I saw seemed like a cross between The O.C. and Celebrity Love Island – networks are finally allowing new shows to leave questions unanswered at the end of episodes. This was always a sure sign that a programme would get cancelled in the past, but now there seems, at last, to be room for mystery. Heroes asks lots of bleak questions, and foretells of awful times to come. It stars reluctant or unwilling heroes, whose powers do not endow them with greatness, but hinder their lives. And yes, those who have been reading such post-Moore anti-hero comics for decades will sneer down their pretentious noses at television’s finally noticing a long-established idea. But lose the attitude, idiots. It’s not going to be as smart, or as dark, or as shocking as your established comic. But it’s trying, and achieving a great deal, and it merits the credit for that.

Jericho – CBS

Another result of the post-Lost/Desperate Housewives schedules is Jericho – a show that would have died of disinterest halfway through its run on the Sci-Fi Channel in 1999. Now the major networks are willing to present mystery drama, so with bigger budgets, more established casts, and swamping promotion, such ideas may have the energy to run. For Heroes I think such advantages are deserved. Jericho needs to prove itself pretty quickly.

A small desert town, a few dozen miles from Kansas City, sees a mushroom cloud go up on the horizon. No one knows what it is, or why it happened. All communications from the town go down, phones stop working, and then eventually the electricity cuts out. The townspeople become unsettled, there’s a missing school bus, and the mayor’s estranged son, after a brief and mysterious visit for the first time in years, was driving away as the cloud went up.

The result is a slightly cloying, slightly heavy-handed, Stephen King-esque apocalyptic drama. The town is big enough to present a constant variation of perspective, the lead characters reasonably well defined and interesting enough to wonder about. And why, if there’s no radiation, is the road covered in dead crows? The worry is these questions are far too vague to remain gripping, and if the dialogue remains as corny, it might become too much to wait to find out. It needs tightening up in almost every area, but if that can be done, there’s a fair amount of potential.

Kidnapped – NBC

Certainly there are no shortage of kidnapping movies and TV shows, and so Kidnapped has some hefty work to do to justify itself above every other Harrison Ford movie. The first episode takes a meandering route to achieving this. The most significant issue is the confusion over who exactly the programme is about. The super-rich upper class New York family are certainly utterly unappealing, and if we’re supposed to care less that their spoiled son has been kidnapped by unidentified assailants, then something’s very wrong. Introduce the maverick, Knapp – a man who makes a living recovering kidnapped children OUTSIDE THE LAW! In an astonishingly poor piece of storytelling, the character is established by a completely daft extended montage of a previous successful rescue which he single-handedly executed. Including executing all the people in the remote building guarding the teenage girl, which is, if he’s not a cop, surely 1st degree multiple homicide? We really are back in those 80s movies where killing someone who is bad doesn’t count.

So he’s hired by the family who are doing what all good victims do and obeying the threatening note not to call the police. Despite a lovely line,

Husband: No no, we’re not going to call the police. The note said NOT to do that.
Wife: I would think the note always says that.

they then proceed to not think about the decision any further. Surely everyone calls the police? Anyhow, through various confusions the police get wind of the kidnapping too, and the programme shifts its focus onto our heroic rescuer who Plays By His Own Rules. Cue much shouting at the cops about how they just don’t know what they’re doing, and battles for control of the situation, and it begins to feel like this is going to be a programme about the weekly adventures of Knapp as he outwits evil kidnappers with his hot British girlfriend and cabinet-tall computer that “traces phonecalls”. But by the end it appears that this isn’t the case either, and this kidnapping is at least lasting two episodes, and worryingly maybe more.

Knapp is ludicrously gruff and sullen, tired eyes that have seen it all, wiser than the FBI, but able to throw out a wry joke. And that’s quite fun, really. If only the programme were about him and his breezy partner, the families he helps on the periphery, as the rest of the clunky cast are far too robotic to engender empathy. At the end of 42 minutes of angry growling and pained looks from all involved, it’s hard to care less if the rich kid gets his face shot off.

Raines – NBC

What a breath of fresh air. It’s Jeff! Jeff Goldblum, and long bloody last, getting to front a TV series. A homicide detective series. A homicide detective series with a twist! The programme was promoted by people who clearly hadn’t seen it, with an idea that sounded kind of fun, a bit Monk meets The Ghost Whisperer, but, er, different and not rubbish: An uneasy detective who is haunted by the victim until the case is solved. However, it’s far better than that. Raines is crazy. The ‘ghosts’ aren’t realy. They have no independent thought, no insight to offer him, no secrets to reveal – they can only know what he already knows, because they are a product of his own broken imagination.

The pilot’s plot follows the seemingly random murder of a young, pretty woman. Easy start. But it soon becomes apparent that her line of business was not quite so straight. Upon discovering that she was a call girl, the haunting vision appears with big hair, slutty clothes and trowled on make up. Until she indignantly protests at Raines that nothing in her apartment could give him the impression she might dress this way, and this was the result of his prejudices. The hair, clothes and make up return to normal. Finding out she’s from Texas means his companion’s accent develops a Southern drawl.

The result is Jeff being Jeff, constrained mumbling and stammering with bulged eyes, before sudden brilliant thinking. And weird imagination-o-ghosts to make it even more fun. There’s a surrounding cast of police chums and colleagues, and a best friend (the always brilliant Luis Guzmán) whom Raines trusts enough to share his madness.

What could have been the same level of disappointing frippery that Monk immediately descended into looks likely to be kept at bay by some really sharp writing. Raines speaks his mind, but it’s an intelligent one worth hearing. He trusts instincts that deserve his trust. It’s really solid detective fiction, just noirish enough without falling into cliche, and with a concept that never needs to become repulsive as ghosts inevitably would. Go Jeff!

Shark – CBS

It’s far too easy to describe Shark as “House with lawyers”. Wait, no, not far too easy. Right. It’s right to describe Shark as “House with lawyers”.

But who cares, because it’s HOUSE WITH LAWYERS! House, now in its third year, continues to be joyful daftness, and it needs to be copied. And James Woods is just perfect for the Hugh Laurie role. The only problem is, CBS doesn’t quite get what makes Fox’s House work. (Fox doesn’t either, for that matter, but enough poweful executive producers seem to be keeping Earth’s most useless network from ruining it). Despite Stark’s shark-like reputation as a defense attorney for the over-privileged, and his ruthless, and somewhat immoral, tactics for winning cases, we have to like him too! Quick, give him an adoring daughter! Quick, make him all lovely sometimes too! But of course the reason we want to like Start is because he’s ruthless and somewhat immoral. We love House because he’s always right, not because he has hidden redeeming features.

The schtick is due to something blah taxes mumble quick think of something writers mumble something, he’s forced to become a prosecution attorney, fighting back for the victims against the OJs of the world, who would otherwise buy their way to freedom. Along with a ragtag group of brilliant-but-naughty young lawyers, jowly Stark must beat all the odds and use his grumpy brilliance to inevitably never lose a case ever.

I can see it working if they don’t overplay the teenage daughter crap. If there’s an episode in the first season where Stark has to choose the case over attending his daughter’s highschool science fair, I’m going to burn CBS to the ground. If there isn’t, then this might be very fun.

Six Degrees – ABC

This one took me by surprise. I feared it was to be another Men In Trees or Brothers And Sisters, but instead something far more interesting is happening inside.

The premise – everyone in the world is connected by six other people, so here’s six people in New York who are connected to each other in myriad ways – doesn’t make sense. But nevermind that it should have been called Two Degrees, let’s get over that.

The cast is very strong, especially with Hope Davis (who was incredible as Joyce Brabner in American Splendor) looking permanently on the verge of tears as the recently widowed wife of a foreign correspondent killed in Iraq, Laura. There’s Bridget Moynahan (Natasha in Sex And The City) as Whitney, who meets Laura at a salon and they become friends. She’s about to get engaged to a suave Brit, and works high up in an advertising agency that hopes to hire the work of depressed artist, Steven Caseman (Campbell Scott – remember, from Singles?! Woo!). He has lost his muse, until he takes a photograph of a woman crying on some steps. That would be Laura. He’s driven across town in a limo driven by a young black man called Damien (newcomer Dorian Missick). Damien is a gambler, in quite some debt, with a brother offering to help him out, but perhaps not in the most positive ways. One evening a man asks him for some help getting into a club. A man called Carlos (Jay Hernandez – star of, er, Hostel), a NYC public defender who falls for a girl arrested for a public nudity misdemeanor. She is Mae (Erika Christensen – many rubbish movies), who after leaving the jail makes a strange phonecall, and a voice tells her she must leave the city. She chooses to disguise herself instead, and protects the mysterious wooden box that must not fall into anyone else’s hands. She needs a job, and starts working for a single mom in a large house. That would be Laura again…

And then things get going.

What threatens overbearing romantic comedy, sort of Desperate Unmarrieds, soon starts taking some turns you aren’t expecting. There’s guns, there’s scary phonecalls, there’s murder, and there’s that mystery box. There’s affairs and new relationships, but none too simple. And there’s the constantly intriguing criss-crossing of these six people’s lives, by what has to be more than sheer coincidence.

Despite almost nothing too huge happening in the first episode, I can’t wait to see more, which is a pleasant surprise. Of course, there’s the niggling fear that this is simply my imagination at work, rather than there’s, and it might be all very ordinary after all. But I’m hopeful.

There’s one more to go, but I’m not ready yet. Let it be said that Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip – NBCis, without question, the finest writing I’ve seen in a television programme since (and the matching theme is purely coincidental) Larry Sanders. It is astonishing, better than I know what to do with, and do everything in your power to watch it.

12 Comments for this entry

  • km

    Step 1: Watch Lots of American TV
    Step 2: ??
    Step 3: Profit!

  • Tom

    I hated Six Degrees. Interconnectedness has been done to death, and this didn’t seem to have any other ideas to offer. Every character is a mind-numbing cliché, and the mawkish narration makes me embarrassed to be in the same room as it.

    Conversely, I have to admit I enjoyed Class. It’s like Friends, only I’m not sick to my stomach of it yet. Certainly it’s formulaic and Crane is repeating himself, but at least – like Shark – it copies something that was some cop in the first place. I even liked the averted suicide, just for the look on the guy’s face. “There’s no godly reason why I should answer that, but… I can’t /not/ answer it.”

    Agreed that Raines is the best, and it’s one of those rare programmes that doesn’t quite feel like TV – it’s a little too intricate, a little too real. A few things don’t sit right about it to me, though. Why can one hallucination see the other but the other can’t see the one? Why does Raines seem genuinely puzzled that a man pretended he didn’t know a hooker in front of his wife? I don’t like that the hallucinations profess their ignorance about things they would know but Raines doesn’t – they ought to remain silent, or refuse to tell him. Haunting enigmas are frustratingly obtuse, rather than bumbling and apologetic.

    “What if this happens with every case?”
    “That would be cool.”

  • Steve W

    Cor, you seem to have found time to have watched far more pilots than me. Out of those I’ve found time to watch (Studio 60, Raines, Heroes, Kidnapped, Jericho), the first three are the only ones I’ll stick with for a while.

    Studio 60 was excellent, if not as well written as some of the best episodes of The West Wing, Raines scratched my itch for a decent crime procedural, despite one large-ish flaw with the pilot, Heroes was clunky, but I’ll forgive it that; the first episode was apparently chopped from 90 minutes to 45. It has enough good to suggest future excellence. Kidnapped was – surprisingly – disposable fun, if you want to switch your brain off. I don’t want to switch my brain off.

    And Jericho. Oh, Jericho. I have too much to say about it in these comments and apologise in advance for the shameless link to my words:

    In summary: no.

  • afray

    Nice post, looking forward to Studio 60 but I’ll keep an eye out for some of the others too, cheers!

    Although I don’t know what you saw in HIMYM. I only ever caught twenty-minute segments of it, but the jokes were strained and the plots, cliched. Even Alyson Hannigan and Dr Dougie, with all their colelctive hotness/wit, couldn’t save it. Am I just not giving it long enough? Is it really not pap?

  • admin

    By “twenty-minute segments” do you mean “episodes”?

    It struggled for about the first 8 episodes, which granted is an awful lot. But at the same time it wasn’t unpleasant, so having all of them to watch at once I ploughed through, and then around episode 9 it suddenly found itself, and I was being surprised by improving jokes. While certainly not original – willthey/won’they sitcom shocker – it’s daft enough, and well performed enough to be worth it.

    Thankfully they drop the pointless bit with the kids at the beginning and end fairly quickly, and instead just keep the 2030 narration. It makes for lovely gag opportunities, rather than being an awkward gimmick now.

    The first two eps of season 2 are around, and I’ll see if it maintains.

  • Andy Krouwel

    Hurrah for convalescence!

  • afray

    Well I kept catching it about ten minutes in, so never actually saw the “kids” bits! But if you say it picks up then maybe I’ll try and catch series two when it comes around on BBC2. Thanks!

  • bob_arctor

    Arrested Development?

  • admin

    Are you announcing that?

    These are reviews of new shows.

    Note no mention of fabulous new House and Family Guy, or daft fun of Survivor and The Amazing Race.

  • mathew

    I hate TV.

    (I hate it even more that all of these has been shoved down my throat in subway adverts and continual TV spots for literally months now.)

  • Cian

    I just watched Studio 60 and it is superb. Eagerly looking forward to the next episode now.

  • Maddy

    I love TV. Especially the american stuff. And Desperate Housewives. But you watch looooads!