John Walker's Electronic House

More TV

by on Sep.29, 2006, under The Rest

Yes, the pilots keep on piling in.

It’s funny, people saying, “You watch a LOT of TV.” Actually, no. I don’t watch any straight-to-air TV, and never, ever watch whatever’s on. Bear in mind that this all equates to about two programmes a day, and that’s only in the opening weeks of the new season, and it’s a fairly average amount of television, minus any drivel that one might sit through at the end of the day. It’s refined viewing, overwhelmed at the moment as the process of discovering what’s worth watching is performed. And it’s all in the interests of Science, and letting you – no, not you – you, know what might be worth watching. I AM LIKE JESUS.

How I Met Your Mothers – Season 2 – NBC

Not a pilot, I admit. The new season picks up splendidly, running with the same energy that saw the previous finish so well. The programme does some important things very well.

First, it doesn’t frustrate with the ‘will they won’t they?’. It’s more ‘they will they won’t’, which works an awful lot better. Season 1 finished with a defininte ‘they will’ (of course, HIMYM’s secret is that you never need to invest yourself into hoping the relationship survives – the narrator constantly reminds us that this is “Aunt Robyn”, and not the wife-to-be) and continues without feeling the need to mess around with that. The focus is moved over to the other couple, and not ludicrously tied up, even after the first two episodes. But of course with these two we know, they will.

The second secret to its success is still not having succumbed to giving Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) any redeeming features. It’s hard to think of another network sitcom that’s had the good sense and stamina to keep a major character such an arse. Season 1 had its excellent tease when he was found working for the homeless shelter on Sundays, and hopefully they’ll remember how much fun ruining it was, and keep teasing. It’s a lovely running joke to have Barney appear altruistic, and then reveal, and episode 2 of the new season does a splendid job.

The programme still deserves no special awards or accolades. It simply fills a very worthwhile position: a decent sitcom worth watching.

Runaway – CW

At last the newly formed CW reveals a new drama. But uh-oh. Runaway is going to have to do something, and it’s going to have to make it explode when it does it. The opening episode’s story of a family on the run, new names, new city, new school, new friends, new jobs… It’s hard to imagine how it could have been more dull. Of course the downside of Lost Syndrome is it means every new programme is going to try and create what it must imagine to be intrigue by just being woefully vague. This is ideal for the likes of Jericho (episode 2 revealed what the programme is going to be – hilariously bad. But hilariously, so well worth sticking with – the gurning escaped criminals dressed as cops were definitely the highlight) and Kidnapped (suddenly dropping in ridiculous suggestions that Mr GRRRR might have had his brain or body meddled with by scientists in the desert – hooray!) but disastrous for what is otherwise a remarkably boring soap. Why are they on the run? Who is leaving the threatening messages? Will the local diner get its window fixed? Will anyone find the energy to care?

You can’t just be vague to elicit interest. You have to be intriguing. Runaway was certainly not, and it gets one more episode to either write an incredibly interesting story, or start blowing shit up.

Help Me Help You – ABC

What a wonderful surprise. Ted Danson’s looked a bit lost since the end of Cheers, and while Becker had some beautifully written rants, it was always sitcom-lite, clearly written for the sake of existing, rather than because of any burning passion to tell a story. Help Me Help You looks like it might be somewhere he can stretch out and enjoy himself.

It’s another one camera sitcom shot on film, but wonderfully without the needless studio laughtrack. Freed from this restriction it opens itself up to much more subtlety and lets people speak in sentences rather than one-liners. Ted Danson is Bill, a genius psychotherapist (his twelve degree certificates hang on his wall) who runs a weekly group therapy session. Programme = following the lives of him and his patients. The pilot does a really splendid job of introducing each character, wasting no time on laboriously cramming exposition into the dialogue, but takes the much more sensible route of just blitzing through clips of each character’s prefered neuroses in a superbly funny extended montage sequence before the opening titles.

Jonathan is gay, gay as can be. But in denial. Sounds like it should be a crappy idea, but somehow works brilliantly. Perhaps it’s because Jonathan is by far the most likeable character, and perhaps because, let’s just be honest, it’s funny to laugh at super-camp people trying to act straight. Inger has no social skills at her disposal, unable to speak anything other than that which is on her mind, which is always beautifully honest. And therefore offensive. Darlene has a list of issues as long as the screen, including an addiction to addiction support groups, and an obession with father-figures. Michael is a bastard, businessman forced to attend by a court order, and with what one might consider anger difficulties. And then, because these writers know how to write, there’s the new guy, our doorway into the group, Dave. Dave’s problems are still more obscure, but he does throw himself out a window when caught playing Solitaire on his work computer.

All the above sounds far too stereotypical, far too cartoonish. And it only gets worse when you say: Of course, Bill has more problems than anyone else in the group. And yet Help Me Help You (which I’ve decided to believe is named after one of Scrubs’ funniest moments) embraces them all in a convincing and engaging way. This is a huge part due to the vastly high calibre of acting, and some of the finest timing I’ve ever seen, both spoken and visually. If each episode is as good as this pilot, it will be without question one of the best comedies in years.

It also has the best theme tune ever.

Smith – CBS

It’s hard to pin Smith down. The pilot presented itself as a super-serious heist drama, following a group of really quite horrific high class criminals, who think nothing of murder. The second episode suddenly became a dramatisation of the GTA games. Hopefully it will settle to something between the two.

It’s a good job no one but me watched this summer’s FX six-part drama, Thief, or there’d be some serious court cases. Smith is Thief with the black people removed. Ray Liotta plays the leader of the criminal gang, who’s also a dedicated family man, father of two. He has to juggle both! But perhaps it’s not quite as cliched as the pilot suggests. His wife is far more canny than you first imagine, the relationship far more complex. Thief took a much bolder move, killing the wife in the first episode and creating a terrifyingly volatile relationship between father and daughter. It also had Andre Braugher, one of the finest actors in the world. Sadly it stretched one heist out over five of its six episodes, and lost momentum. Smith looks like it might make the same mistake.

After the flashback structure of the pilot’s introductory museum job, episode 2 only featured discussion of the next big job – the same mistake Thief made. Thankfully it somewhat balanced this with a smaller job by half of the crew, which gave it all the excuses it needed to suddenly go batshit crazy and Rockstar things up. When Jeff (Simon Baker) sees a motorbike he wants, he walks over, throws the rider off it, and drives off. When his clothes stink, he walks into a store and changes. When he prepares for the job, he walks into a carpark, picks the car he wants, and drives off in it.

The complete lack of morals in the crew is peculiarly uncomfortable. Thief went to some ends to make the characters both believeable criminals and likeable people. Smith’s cast appear to be cold-blooded murderers driven only by greed. This may well be more realistic, but it’s quite hard to see how the programme will keep you on their side, rather than rooting for them to be arrested and the show finished after the first few episodes. Although it could be argued that Amy Smart being one of them does make it a bit easier.

Ugly Betty – ABC

I knew nothing about Ugly Betty before watching it, other than the episode code was S01E01. What I know now is that I adored it.

It’s not really possible to identify what Ugly Betty is. It’s not a sitcom, nor a drama. It’s a 42 minute show, but behaves like a movie. And it doesn’t appear to be bothered with pesky notions of reality. In fact, I’m so happy to say, Ugly Betty is a fairytale. And wow, it’s about time someone started making fairytales for TV.

At first it’s impossible to shrug off the annoyance that Betty’s ugliness is a product of bad glasses, bushy eyebrows and traintrack braces. It’s clear she’s rather pretty, if slightly overweight (by TV standards), and surely we’re past this disgusting Disney version of ugliness, that can always be fixed by a five minute makeover at the end of the movie, right before the big dance. Of course, this is on Disney’s TV channel, so perhaps that’s what it is… But then it seems, no. Betty’s not ugly. She’s got terrible dress sense, and indeed bad glasses and traintracks on her teeth, sure. But Betty’s normal. Her new job, however, is at a fashion magazine, and there, Betty is ugly.

Betty is Latino, mid-20s, living in a small, dingy house with her father, older sister and nephew. She adores magazines – the process of their creation – and goes for a job at a large publishing company. Laughed away by the snobbish staff, she’s surprised when she’s given a job as an editorial assistant for one of the leading fashion rags by the owner of the company. (Jim from Neighbours!) It is, in fact, a punishment for his son, editor as a result of nepotism, and prone to sleeping with all his staff. He won’t want to sleep with Betty, see?

The result is a cross between Cinderella and Zoolander. The fashion world in which Betty finds herself is a ludicrous parody of fashion’s idiocy (a photoshoot has wrecked cars in piles, with large crepe flames fluttering all around, the models draped awkwardly across the bonnets and in front of the wheels – even better than Zoolander’s Derilict shoot – I laughed so hard). The staff are outlandish cartoon extremes, faces rigid with collagen, or in one case, lips taking over a face. The building is impossibly chic, the magazine achingly pompous. But what makes it all so perfect is the dead-straight face with which it’s all played. It’s a pantomime world, but believes itself to be perfectly sensible.

Betty’s role is to both reveal the lunacy, and attempt to fit into it. This is made all the more convincing by the presence of Ashley Jensen, Ricky Gervais’ friend in Extras. She is the best thing about Extras, and she’s the second best thing here. Her character, Christina, works in “the closet” – where all the clothes are stored for the magazine’s shoots. And where the company normally hides girls of the likes of Betty. Betty may have friends there. “It’s the bizarro version of Sex And The City,” snipes one of the super-camp assistants upon seeing them to a “Chico” (Closet’s nickname for the “bitches” who work in editorial).

And so the lines are drawn, Betty on the wrong side of them, working for an editor intent on forcing her to quit so he can have an assistant he’d like to pork. And it all merrily tumbles along, daft and beautiful. And a fairytale. Any left in any doubt about this will have to give it up after the impossibly perfect ending, and appearance of a mysterious, evil witch.

What a fanatastic thing.

2 Comments for this entry

  • Steve W

    Help Me Help You – if it had appeared five years ago, it would be distinctive enough to perhaps add to my permanent watch list. Now, it seems rather ordinary. Good, but not exceptional. I’ll watch the second episode in case it proves endearing enough to continue with, but as it stands, armand dictates that I give it a miss until I’ve run out of other things to watch.

    Ugly Betty – less a fairytale, more a pantomime. But still, very entertaining, with exceptional acting from America Ferrera. Betty’s non-ugliness annoys me more than it seems to do you, but the writing seems strong enough to avoid falling into the usual trap. Less obvious is whether it will avoid falling into Never Been Kissed trap. We’ll see.

    I think Alan Dale has done enough solid support work by now to deserve more than being dismissed as Jim Robinson, btw.

  • mathew

    I hate TV, and Ugly Betty was the most trailered thing ever on TV here (seriously, they ran adverts for about 3 months) but yet, somehow…

    I watched it ;_;