John Walker's Electronic House

This Is Your Pilot Speaking

by on Jun.21, 2008, under Television

It’s leaky pilot season, earlier than ever this year.

Life On Mars – ABC

ABC’s remake of the BBC series is peculiarly similar. As in, word-for-word in some scenes. Even shot for shot occasionally. Except, thank goodness, the American version does it without constantly lapsing into utter, utter awful cliche. Instead it’s just slightly awful cliche, and presumably more palatable to my English tastes as American shows always have that extra degree of unreality. Impressively, neither show falls into the “everything from the 1970s happened on this day” that most shows fall into. (See Journeyman for this. Or at its absolute worst, the recent execrable Indiana Jones film).

But for an excellent example of the improvements made by the US version, take the scene when the cops are interviewing the old lady who makes reference to the noise from her neighbour’s music finally stopping. It is at that point that they, and we, make the connection between this fact and the soundproofing material found under the victims’ fingernails. In the US version the moment is electric, they glance, and they move. In the UK version they do a remarkably embarrassing double-take, just shy of the noise of a ruler being twanged, and then jump over the desk in slow motion.

As an ABC show, it’ll be interesting to see how they spin a 12 episode story into a 22/24 part first season. Hopefully they’ll have the sense to move away from the UK material post-pilot. They’ve already made some dramatic improvements, not least removing the focus from the Carry On levels of “oooh, weren’t the police sexist” the BBC version constantly slaps about the viewer’s face. There’s also a great deal more visual imagination with the invasions of modern-day hospital noises and out-of-context characters. And the final scene of the first episode – the jumping sequence – thank goodness it was completely re-written to not be half-arsed dreadfulness. In fact, it shows that the scene can have some genuine gravitas, and far more effectively muddle you about Sam’s reality. Life On Mars was always a really brilliant idea, unfortunately suffocated by the BBC’s insistence on stagomg everything as if it’s about to turn into Confessions Of A Window Cleaner. It might have a chance of escaping this in the US. And Colm Meaney is over four thousand times better as DI Gene Hunt.

Fringe – Fox

When Chris Carter created his pilot about FBI agents who investigate unexplained phenomenon, he crafted a subtle, funny, and most importantly, original show. Mulder, his open-minded FBI agent had been given too much freedom to explore his nutball ideas, and was assigned a skeptical partner whose job was to reel him in. But he was left with extraordinary freedom, and while his bosses disapproved, he got his way.

When J.J. Abrams created his pilot about an FBI agent who investigates unexplained phenomenon, he somewhat forgot the subtle, the funny, and oddly enough, the original. But oh good grief, there’s no shortage of the cliches and exposition. His Olivia Dunham is forced into having infinite freedom to do anything she likes with the help of the institutionalised Dr. Walter Bishop, and his reluctant son, Peter. Together the three of them run around with high-beam torches, investigating a dreadful story about a strange pathogen causing people’s bodies to go transparent. And Dunham’s boyfriend has the disease! There’s some extended gibberish about hooking her up mentally to him, and what was presumably supposed to be hilarious sequences with a dairy cow in their laboratory. It’s hopeless, and so shameless an X-Files clone that you have to wonder if the writers think Carter’s creation was an obscure deep cable show that no one would notice their ripping off. The writers of Transformers, it should be stressed.

But standing out most is the dialogue. Oh boy. Here are some choice highlights.

Dunham: I’m an inter-agency liason.
Grumpy Black FBI Boss Cliche: Liii-ason on an interrr-agency taskforce. Gotta love that. Kinda like powdered sugar on a glased donut.

“What kind of terrorism is this?” someone shouts in zeitgeisty horror. The oh-so earnest reply,
“Who says it’s terrorism?!”

There’s no end of people shrieking, “EFF BEE EYE!”, and at one point it peaks with,


But my favourite line was Dunham idly chatting with someone about Grumpy Black FBI Boss Cliche:

“Bastard. He’s pissed because his best friend sexually assaulted three marine privates and I’m the bad guy because I put him away.”

Apparently Fox were interested to find out what people thought of the leak. To answer that question: spend another $10,000,000 editing the hell out of it. I think there’s a show in there somewhere, but flipping heck, it’s not that edit.

True Blood – HBO

This is a deeply weird one. Vampires “came out” two years ago, and society is trying to figure out how they fit in. With a massive lack of trust, naturally. But it’s HBO, so there’s unending swearing and a good few boobs. The leaked pilot is very unfinished, with entire scenes missing, so it’s not yet fair to criticise its confusing plotting. The programme, bizarrely, is about a girl who can read minds. She works in a small American town bar, a town that has its first vampire move in. More bizarrely, it’s Anna Paquin playing the telepathic waitress – Rogue from the X-Men movies.

The allegory for the vampire “coming out” is heavy-handed, but it does bring some excellent new phrases. “Fang-banging” is when humans seek sex with vampires. And vampires “came out the coffin.” There’s some rather awkward HBO tail eating, beginning with a horribly forced Bill Maher interview, and later someone even referencing something “being like an HBO show.” It needs some hefty tightening up, and could do with losing about a third of its scenes before it’s finished.

Raising The Bar – TNT

Odd one this. A lawyer show about lawyers doing lawyering, without a single original feature, that’s completely watchable and oddly engaging.

The Middleman – ABC Family

Not a leak, but an aired episode. And one of the best things I’ve seen in forever. Imagine Joss Whedon banter in a Brian Fuller world. Javier Grillo-Marxuach’s graphic novel, about a struggling artist who gets hired to work for a secret organisation that deals with monsters and evildoers, is brought to TV by JGM himself. It’s just lovely, constantly beautifully written, as Wendy Watson learns the ropes of her new job from The Middleman, a stoic, endlessly calm agent who speaks like a gosh-darned 1940s comic hero.

A real highlight of the episode, made family-friendly throughout, is the swearing. Watson, exasperated by the Middleman’s remarkable politeness in the face of extraordinary circumstances, lets loose a volley of swearing, entirely bleeped and even black bars appearing to block her mouth. It’s a programme that’s heftily self-aware of its santised nature, and plays on it wonderfully.

There’s a clear lack of budget, but despite this CGI sets are really evocative. A laboratory has a giant, multi-storey contraptions that looks as though it were built by Fisherprice. But just so it’s clear, this is an episode about a gorilla terrorising the mafia. Yes. It’s adorable, and hilarious. It’s the best thing since Pushing Daisies, and deserves a kerbillion viewers.

Pretty/Handsome – FX

Nip/Tuck (a show I’ve never seen) creator Ryan Murphy creates, writes and directs a new show for confused cable channel FX (wants to be HBO, isn’t deep cable enough to be HBO). It’s about a gynaecologist (Joseph Fiennes), his complicated, upper-middle-class family (although you’d think being married to Carrie-Ann Moss would help), and his secret cross-dressing. Clearly that’s the hook, the premise at its pitch, that the dude wears panties. But oddly it’s everything else about the programme that’s so good. If anything, you could remove the T-V story and you’d have a really strong family drama. The older son’s highschool girlfriend has hidden her pregnancy and is now at 8 months, the younger son is ten, but with an adult IQ, and is attempting to get interested in girls, and his father (and partner in his surgery) is cheating on his mom. Fiennes and Moss are having issues in the bedroom, and Fiennes is faced with a pre-op transexual wanting him to give him/her a hysterectomy, and all the accompanying complications that would arise from that in such a Republican neighbourhood.

The programme is at its weakest whenever it focuses on Fienne’s underwear. Fantastic dialogue and decent perfomances give way to clogged up cliche. The biggest problem is the impression that we’re supposed to think Fiennes is being faced with issues over his desire to cross dress for the first time, despite incessant flashbacks telling us he’s been compelled to wear women’s clothing since childhood. Talk of sex change operations causes him to stop in his tracks, dumbfounded as if suddenly struck by the notion. But of course he’d have encountered the subject numerous times before. Just because we’ve invaded his life at this point should not reset his experiences to zero.

However, it comes together nicely when Fiennes and Moss go to a Halloween party dressed as the opposite sex, with the first decent pay-off for the key subject matter. Fiennes’ opportunity to dress as he desires in public results in enhancing his relationship with his wife. Sadly this gives way to an enormously awful final scene, where the ten year old explains to the family that his recently acquired pet seahorses have the male carry the young, etc etc blah blah sigh.

“Why not call the chick seahorse the guy and the guy seahorse the chick?”
“Because nature, at its best, is complicated.”

How very convenient for him to have just happened to adopt pets that provide such a perfect metaphor! Presumably in episode two he’ll add some Wrinkled Frogs (Rana rugosa dontcha know) and we can all learn how they’re able to change sex if the needs arise. In fact, if Murphy hears of this I bet he’ll kick himself. “That metaphor would have been even more laboured!” Anyway, stupid ending to a really strong programme.

Do Not Disturb – Fox

There was a nagging feeling of familiarity all the way through the pilot of Fox’s new sitcom hopeful about a five-star hotel in New York, and its staff of mismatched misfits. It was toward the end, when the big fat girl who wasn’t allowed to work with the public because she was so big and fat, burst into song to prove her worth even though she was big and fat, that I recognised it: it’s the sitcom Andy makes in the second series of Extras. Admittedly a middle-class version, but the face-pulling, woeful-stereotyping and grotesquely false pathos are all in place.

Jerry O’Connell, who last year was just so brilliant in Carpoolers, plays Andy (his character really is also called Andy) – the gurning, overwhelmed manager of the hotel, bossed around by his female staff even though they’re only women, and always in fear of his tyranical father-figure and hotel owner. Niecy Nash is his fiesty black second-in-command Rhonda, and she sure is black and fiesty! Then there’s Larry, who we find out when overhearing a conversation with someone who is obviously his partner is… gay! A real gay in a TV show! But just in case the look-at-us knowing reference to a male on the phone wasn’t enough, it’s spelt out for us when he shouts, “I KNOW WE’RE GAY!” Stunning. There’s Nicole, a stick-thin member of the front desk staff, whose character arc appears to be played out in the opening episode when her entire personality is transformed from epic bitch to lovely friend. (It’s an unashamed attempt to mimic Amanda from Ugly Betty – one of the most sophisticated and beautifully written and performed characters on television today – it’s safe to say they don’t quite achieve this). And there’s the big and fat Molly, who is big, and also fat.

Without a scrap more personality for anyone, what results is 22 minutes of racist, homophobic and sexist remarks, all apparently justified because the people who say them are ignorant. We’re supposed to be laughing at them, not with them, as they regurgitate gross stereotypes, which makes it all okay. Of course, we’re not laughing at all.

The story, such as it was, appeared to be about how Andy only wants pretty girls to work on the front desk, and how Molly is big and fat, and that those two don’t match. This builds to the point where Molly is threatening a justified lawsuit, and then is given an opportunity to expose Andy in front of the press, but in the most hideous scene imaginable, backs down from all this in order to maintain the status quo. That’s right Molly, don’t get ideas above your station, you are big and fat after all. Instead they both hilariously fall down the stairs together, and in this pratfall we’re supposed to move on from the “know your place, fatty” theme of the episode. Then when whining about how she wants to be a singer for a second time, she’s told, “people don’t need to see you to know you’re a good singer.” Just wow. She says, “What am I supposed to do, answer the phone like this…” and then warbles in a voice that would get her to seventh place in American Idol before they voted off the ugly ones, while the cast stare in gobsmacked amazement, and the audience shrieks in delight at this glimmer of talent appearing on stage. Molly is justified as a human being even though she’s fat. She’s allowed to be visible once a week or something, because she can sing, and er, I dunno, it was the longest 22 minutes of my life and I sort of lost track.

How on earth did Jason Bateman (director) and Abraham Higginbotham (writer) create this ghastly, offensive mess? Arrested Development it is not. In fact, it’s about as opposite a sitcom as you could imagine.

16 Comments for this entry

  • Steve W

    Hooray, pilot season come early. Bad news on Life on Mars: ABC didn’t like the leaked pilot so they’re reshooting it. But it’s nice to see some love for The Middleman. I didn’t even think this was on anyone else’s radar, so I chucked 1000 words at it myself hoping someone would notice. I don’t think they did.

    Fringe was just about the worst-scripted thing I’ve seen all year. It angries up the blood every time I sit down to write something about it. The most memorable exchange for me went something like:

    “His skin, it’s translucent?”
    “You mean, can you see through it?”

    Which fails on just about every conceivable level. It doesn’t just need a re-edit, it needs major reshoots. But that’s unlikely and it’ll end up with a billion viewers or so.

  • Steve W

    You mean as a competitor for the ‘worst-scripted’ title? I haven’t downl… evaluated it yet. The early pilot leaks caught me on the hop a little, so I haven’t done my usual research on the ones to look out for. I only tried The Middleman on a whim, thanks to some glowing reviews I stumbled across on AICN of all places. I’m still flabbergasted that some people seem to like Fringe, and the word on Pretty/Handsome is equally polarised (“Change the channel! Horrible, horrible, horrible, truly horrible on so many levels” / “Unbelievable. Ryan Murphy reminds us why he is the most creative showrunner today.”) That it’s from the makers of Nip/Tuck leaves me more inclined to believe the former.

    I watched the first episode of John Adams last night on recommendation from my brother. It was pretty good, though tends to assume a school-leaver knowledge of American history. He says it gets much better.

  • Steve W

    See, now you’ve deleted your reply I’m coming across as a proper mentalist. Especially with this looking like my third unasked-for comment in a row.

  • botherer

    I don’t know what Steve’s talking about. I never asked anything! I think he’s losing his mind.

  • Steve W

    You’re history’s greatest monster.

  • Thomas Lawrence

    Hey, John, correct me if I’m wrong, but last year during the pilot season, didn’t you mention while talking about the Studio 60 pilot that you’d never watched The West Wing?

  • Iain "DDude" Dawson

    Now you have me really excited about Middleman. Anything that can be compared to Pushing Daisies get me instantly interested.

    It seems a shame that all the rest of the piolts you mention look so dissapointing. Thanks for posting this, you are usually accurate in what you say, pointing out the things i need to watch.

  • NM

    John, you seem to have missed the point of the original Life on Mars series. The whole point about the vision of the 70s is that it was at least superpositionally a simulcra, a construct of the protagonist’s mind, and as such, every cliche and trope is to be expected. It’s not simply a transport back to the 70s, but a dream-like collage of every 70s brash expectation indeed all happening at once. Subtlety would have ruined it.

  • botherer

    I should prefer to be in the head of someone with a slightly better imagination than one apparently entirely existing within the embarrassing boundaries of BBC television.

    As I say, the American version does a far better job of confusing reality, and thus makes for a more interesting programme. You’re left in no doubt that he’s in a coma, but you’re given enormous reasons for *him* to doubt it.

  • NM

    The point of it was precisely that this was the head of someone who had grown up with programmes like Z-cars where, indeed, they did leap in slow motion over tables and the like. The entertainment was in his first rebelling against the grotesques, and eventually succumbing to the archetypes, as if in final admission that these early “idealised” memories of televisual policing had, in fact, driven him to become a policeman in the first place. In a sense, the final admission of this to himself, the revelling in the archetypes, is what liberates his mind.

  • botherer

    Which makes it a bit of a shame it’s so poorly done.

  • Pentadact

    I dug Middleman too. Hadn’t heard a word about it until I watched it, so it came as a complete surprise. I have infinite time for protagonists who take things in their stride. Nothing is more mind-numbing to watch than disbelief.

  • NM

    It was done very well. You’re just grumpy.

  • botherer

    It really wasn’t. Unfortunately you’ve attached yourself to this programme and will no longer view it critically.

  • Masked Dave

    I must say, that scene where they double take and jump over the desk in slow motion is what made me finally love Life on Mars, I suddenly got what they were doing. They just wanted to make a fun 70s cop show again, but needed a modern day protagonist to excuse the sexism racism, etc.

    Although admittedly that stuff got really tiring.

    Still, I always thought they should ditch the coma thing and just keeping telling the story as if he was stuck there. The whole ‘will he wake up?!’ thing was plain dull.

  • admin

    I like this site so much !!