John Walker's Electronic House

New TV 09

by on Jan.28, 2009, under Television

New year, new shows. Commentary. Click on for more.

Erica Strange – CBC

I might as well hand my testicles in, because I really love this. Erica Strange is 32, single, without a career, and directionless. On a particularly bad day that sees her boyfriend dump her, losing her job, and finishing in hospital after an allergic reaction to a Starbucks drink, she is visited by Dr Tom. He’s not a doctor from the hospital, but in fact a therapist who seems to have a great deal of insight into her life. He leaves her with a card. Things only get worse as she spends a night at her parents’ house, with critical family visiting out of their brand of concern, until she jumps out of an upstairs window in her pyjamas and runs into town. She finds the address on Dr Tom’s card, and is let in to see him.

It seems that the mysterious doctor has a unique therapeutic approach. After having her write down her extensive list of incidents that have emotionally affected her over her life, he sends her back in time. You know, like some therapists do. She’s back at high school, it’s the Fall formal, on the night she got hideously wasted on vodka. She had passed out, vomited, convulsed, lost her boyfriend, and became a laughing stock. It’s a night that she credits as being enormously significant. And she’s back there, apparently given the chance to try again.

It could be a vacuous show about someone getting to make her life perfect, but it’s quite different. The night goes worse, if anything, but the process forces her to think about the patterns of thoughts she lets control her. It’s therapy, basically. And most interestingly, it appears that her time travel is genuine. The consequences of her actions in the past change the present. Not dramatically – there’s a great moment after Erica, speaking to Dr Tom in the past (he’s selling hotdogs outside the school), terrified and bemused about what’s happening asks if her changing the past might cause World War III or something. Dr Tom disparagingly responds, “Is it possible that your alcohol consumption, though [sarcastically] very important to you, might not play a role in influencing world events?”

Dr Tom’s office turns out not to exist, or, well, not exist where it first was. In later episodes it appears through doors in other buildings. Dr Tom, with his habit of throwing in quotations into every conversion, appears in varying roles in her earlier life, where Erica gets second goes at moments on her list. It’s hard to describe without it seeming very cloying. It mostly isn’t. She’s not putting right what once went wrong. She’s not learning a valuable life lesson. She’s simply experiencing a literal version of the process of theray, where discussing past events and the attached thoughts and feelings helps someone to make small breakthroughs. The show also has the sense to keep the whizzbang of the gimmick peculiarly low-key. There’s usually around fifteen minutes of present-day story before there’s any time travel, and five minutes at the end, meaning almost half the episode isn’t in the flashback. And Erica is pleasingly relaxed about it all. Of course in reality someone might be taking themselves to a psychotherapist, or at least talking to someone else about what was happening to them. But I like the fact that she’s not panicking or skeptical about the process. It’s happening, so she gets on with it.

Ultimately, it’s a girly show about a woman trying to figure out why she’s so self-destructive, while in love with her best friend from college, and having a tough time with her shoes. But who cares, it’s pretty great. Good scripts, and a surprisingly ageless lead in Erin Karpluk, who isn’t unconvincingly 32 and 20 in a single episode. (High school was pushing it). She’s immensely likeable and cute, which helps. Michael Riley is fantastic as Dr Tom, all goatee bird and kind eyes. And thank goodness it’s on CBC, where grown ups are allowed to say “shit” in the right moments.

Scrubs – ABC

How lovely to see the “ABC” after the name, after eight years of being kicked around the alleyway behind NBC. There are no changes to the core show at all – something that seems odd since Kelso retired at the end of last series. But thanks to the previously established free muffins for life deal at the hospital’s Coffee Bucks, he’s around every episode. A brief threat the kick him out, along with the Janitor, proved to be a false alarm in the first two episodes, and the status quo is restored, with a new crop of interns.

However, there have been changes to the writing. Recognising things had become a little too slapstick, there’s been a conscious effort to return to the dramatic nature of the earlier seasons. JD still has his fantasies, of course, and there’s still a great propensity for silliness. But at the same time the stories are heavier, deeper. In fact, three of the last four episodes have dealt with people dying from cancer. And as if in recognition of this new attempt at maturity, JD and Elliot are once again back together, but with a fresh, mature attitude. Who knows whether Bill Lawrence will keep them together – which is to say, whether he’s a capable enough writer to survive resolving his will-they-won’t-they. He rapidly wrote his way out of JD’s having a son, by keeping the baby out the show as much as possible – mentioned twice in six episodes, I think? But that’s for the best. Getting your WTWT together is only slightly less stupid than giving your lead a baby. (Can Dexter survive this curse?)

There’s a fantastic moment in the sixth episode where Elliot points out that JD’s an idiot. Incredibly knowingly, he responds that she knew what she was getting into, and she beams in response. They seem a bit more like people this time, than the forgetful cartoon rabbits the annual relationship story usually turned them into.

But my goodness, the fifth episode was good. As if written for me by angels, it featured Sesame Street Muppets in the hospital, within JD’s daydreams. Oscar, Grover and Elmo in Scrubs… But what was extraordinary was how this was the saddest episode since Ben died. Written and directed by Lawrence, his deft skill let a scene with Elmo teaching the new super-bitch intern, Denise/Jo, how to be kind to patients, feature in an episode that ended in not only death, but the main cast all recognising significant failings. Oh, and it ends with the saddest version of the Sesame Street theme you could ever imagine.

Still brilliant after all these years.

United States Of Tara – Showtime

That a deep cable programme about a deeply dysfunctional family, with a mother exhibiting Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, formerly Multiple Personality Disorder), came from the imagination of Steven Spielberg is just plain strange. In no way does it represent his saccharine interpretation of the American family, and nor is it him dredging over his parents’ divorce once again. Although since his only credit is “creator”, not even getting a nominal “executive producer”, presumably his involvement went as far as a post-it note.

The show is instead the work of Diablo Cody, who came to prominence over Juno. United States of Tara reflects the same dingy, unpleasant tone that Juno exuded, but here it’s appropriate. Where Juno was meant to be kitsch and clever, it was only ever spiteful. USOT, in setting out to be far more morbid, lets its moments of positivity feel genuine and a relief.

There’s an interesting issue for the programme. DID is extremely controversial, since most evidence suggests the condition only exhibits itself as a result of therapy, rather than existing before. In fact, there were barely any diagnosed cases of it before Sybil was written in the 70s. And even the central character of Sybil has been mostly discredited. So what does the show do? Taking the lazy route and pretend it’s a definite condition, and then make a twist comedy drama out of the situation would be the direction in which most TV would. Rather brilliantly, USOT embraces the confusion, and exists in ambiguity.

Tara is played by the completely brilliant Toni Collette (the mother in Little Miss Sunshine), who switches between Tara’s ‘alters’ smoothly and convincingly. Convincingly in the sense that you are forced to wonder all the time if it’s an act, an elaborate and conscious defence mechanism, or if she’s genuinely changing personalities. This confusion is increased by the reactions of those around her. Her husband, John Corbett (Chris from Northern Exposure! And just incredible here), verbally maintains his belief in DID, and talks to the alters as individuals, and doesn’t hold his wife accountable for their actions. However, the veneer occasionally seems false, and a moment at the end of the second episode almost gives him away. Her older teenage daughter is disgusted by it all, acting out, and being a pretty brattish – in fact, she’s a pretty weak stereotype of a grumpy teenager, which is perhaps Cody’s weakness. The 14 year old son is much more interesting, patient and level-headed, but clearly about to lose balance. Then Tara’s sister doesn’t believe in it at all, instead believing it’s her sister faking everything. The backstory, slowly hinted at, is that Tara’s recently come off the meds, and the menagerie of alters familiar to the family are reappearing.

Some people seem to be confusing the shorter running time, 26 minutes an episode, as meaning it’s a sitcom. The term can only stretch so far. This is a drama, and certainly isn’t playing for laughs. It’s funny, certainly, but that’s not the point. It’s hard to know where it’s going. Whether it can sustain, without becoming Alter Of The Week, will be interesting. And what it will do with the ambiguity will possibly make or break it.

5 Comments for this entry

  • Iain "DDude" Dawson

    Hooray for Botherer TV reviews!

    While interested in Tara and Erica, man, I do love Scrubs. I cannot wait to see more, having only watched the first two so far. (Took me ages to get used to widescreen.) Definitely agree with what you say about a return to seriousness, and hoping they can keep that without loosing the wacky fun of the show at the same time. (+1 for any Dr.Acula reference.)

  • Chris

    Not convinced by Being Erica yet, and I’m totally flummoxed by how much Erica Strange looks like a young President Roslin.

    US of T, though, is fantastic.

  • Masked Dave

    That Seseme Street episode was fantastic, but the best thing about new Scrubs? The improv takes they didn’t use at the end of the credits. They’ve had me in stitches every episode.

  • Seniath

    The juxtaposition of the Seasme Street theme with the scenes of someone dying were certainly an excellent example of the kind of thing Scrubs does best.

    Really enjoying this season so far; a marked improvment over 7, and they finally used DCFC as backing music for an episode (one of the best episodes ever, in my opinion).

  • Joe Russell

    I definitely agree with you about Scrubs. The couple of seasons before this one had more than a whiff of mediocrity in the writing, but it’s certainly back on form now.

    I also agree with Masked Dave – I think that might be another reason this series has seemed a bit fresher and more natural, that they’re letting a bit of improv into the show. Of course, I have no idea whether they did this before, so that’s pretty much an unsupported argument right there.