Friday, May 22, 2009

What I've been watching

Let's start with Lost, which had another stellar season. With five years of plot and character development now behind us, it's difficult to recommend it to newcomers, but the summer may be as good a time as any to get caught up and ready for the final season. I would say it's worth the effort, because this is the only show of the last five years that I would expect to still persist in my memory long after it finishes. The sci-fi and mystical elements grow ever more fantastic, the twists and turns keep me constantly engaged, and composer Michael Giacchino's still underrated work is in a class of its own among television scores. But Lost is and always has been a character-driven show, with some of the most rewarding character arcs in television history.

Going into the sixth and final season, my only fear is that it's going to tighten up and focus back in on the main love triangle plot, which long ago lost my interest, especially as the girl and one of the guys are now among the least likable characters on the show. It's a conventional (and, in my opinion, lousy) formula, whereby the story forces these two characters together, and it takes all series to resolve their feelings for one another. It marks any character that gets between them (including the other main guy) as an intruder that consequently becomes hard to consider seriously. With so many more interesting personalities and subplots to work with, I'll be severely disappointed to have the story regress to the old Jack and Kate foolery. But, hey, Lindelof and crew have earned some degree of faith on my part, and maybe they can make even that angle work out.

Supernatural, my other current favorite show, enjoyed a strong recovery from last year's strike-shortened season. The fall premiere included possibly the most soberly captivating thirty minutes since Buffy season five's "The Body" episode. In many ways, the show is a better version of X-Files, striking a near-perfect balance between the typically grim larger story arcs and the consistently amusing monster-of-the-week episodes, which still manage to resonate in the big picture. The core of the show, however, has always been the relationship between the brothers Winchester, and it may be the strongest bond between any two characters on TV. These are guys who have literally died for one another, and the lengths they continue to go to for each other's sake, no matter the obstacle, is simply inspiring.

Its fellow CW genre show, Smallville, had another miserable season. This show should not have an hour time slot. The writers clearly don't know how to fill forty minutes per week. Not that there isn't enough material to work with. The best episode in years was this season's Zatanna episode, but that really isn't saying much.

At the midpoint, the episode seemed to call back to the classic "Superman Takes a Wife" issue of the comics, with Zatanna filling the role of The Wizard, erasing "Superman" from existence by suppressing Clark's own knowledge of his powers and Kryptonian heritage. The original comic was a twenty-two-page epic that set out to show that, ultimately, it was the man in him that made him super, and, even without the role of Superman, Clark Kent would emerge as an enemy of injustice to win Lois Lane's heart. The TV episode showed promise with an amusing scene of Clark, busy concentrating on his actual job at the Daily Planet, reluctant to indulge the theories of the one friend who still knew the secrets he had forgotten. But then, instead of further exploring the idea, the episode just pissed away its minutes building tension for the season arc that would go nowhere. By the way, this show's idea of tension is to have everybody keeping secrets and lying poorly to one another. Why can't they just tell a single good story? The only thing Smallville had going for it was the anticipation built over seven improbable seasons, but even that has gone out the window with the recent cast overhauls.

For me, The Simpsons notwithstanding, Fox's night was actually Friday, when the network would roll out its sci-fi programming with Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Dollhouse. The former was an unnecessary addition to the Terminator mythos, which, as far as I'm concerned, was resolved with T2. But it was also a pretty gripping action series that took a lot of risks and was continually getting better. It's a shame that Fox has decided to cancel it mid-story without even waiting to see what boost it might have gotten from the new movie.

Dollhouse, meanwhile, had a severely flawed first season. It took six episodes to really get going, and, after twelve episodes, it still has yet to answer basic questions that constantly threaten to collapse the whole show. Why does the dollhouse exist? What, besides sex fantasies, do its expensive and illegal services offer that can't be gotten through more legitimate channels? Who are these clients who are hiring Eliza Dushku to do child services work? Speaking of which, I know the show was more or less made for Dushku, but the harsh reality is that she just doesn't have the range demanded of her role. Watching the season finale, it seemed so obvious to me that Amy Acker, who has a recurring role as Dr. Saunders, should have been the one to play the lead. As both Fred and Illyria on Angel, Acker had already proven her ability to seamlessly transition between extremes of character, and, on the latest episode of Dollhouse, she again managed to completely transform from one character into another in the blink of an eye. She was better than Dushku even at the blank doll non-acting stuff.

With both this and Terminator being on the bubble, there was the perception that the two struggling shows were competing for at most one slot next season. Now that it's been confirmed that Dollhouse will be the one returning, I can only hope that the second season will be way better.

Then there was Prison Break, which, after a lengthy hiatus, returned at the end of the season to relieve Terminator and limp to its finale. In its first season, this was a great character-driven show--a bit like Lost in prison, with the focus shifting week-to-week between the male inmates, exploring how each ended up in prison and why they needed to break out. With the second season, it shifted to conspiracy thriller mode, losing much of its heart, but it looked to be progressing on a logical course toward a conclusion, which seemed imminent with a majority of the principal characters getting killed off almost one a week.

The series became a victim of its own success, however, and the third season was where the plot ran off the rails. The protagonist, Michael Scofield, a true genius who had mapped out his season one prison break months in advance of his incarceration, was now having to devise on-the-fly plans for an escape from a more brutal prison, completely cheapening the meticulousness of his original feat. It was almost certainly a mirror of the show's creators, who originally plotted it for two seasons, and then, all of a sudden, found themselves under pressure to keep churning out more stories. The twists grew increasingly unbelievable, until it all became just silly. I mean, this was a show where they cut off a main character's head and delivered it in a box as a message, but then she got better and came back the next season. With a finale that dug deep for several nods to the first season, it ended as well as it could have, considering what it had become.

Moving on to NBC, the reality TV-filled lineup was certainly spotty, but, looking back, I was surprised at the amount of scripted programming that made it onto my schedule. Granted, it wasn't all good. Take Heroes, for example. I always found this show lacking in intelligence, but it has somehow rapidly declined these past two seasons, even from its dimwitted beginnings, to become possibly the dumbest scripted show on television. Not an episode goes by without some sort of glaring plot hole or inconsistency. The writing is self-indulgent, and the atrocious dialogue would cripple almost any actor. Yet, awful though it may be, the one thing I continue to appreciate about Heroes is its regular defiance of US television conventions that ought to be defied. There's a courage (stupidity?) to the pacing that is woefully lacking in shows such as Smallville and Prison Break. It does not rely on filler episodes to stretch the season, and, whereas Prison Break's constant mindfulness of its minutes grew increasingly transparent to distracting effect, Heroes doesn't tease viewers with weekly cliffhangers, instead developing in a more organic manner. Such a shame that it has no brains to go along with its balls.

The most surprising show of the season was Chuck. The first season of this series, about an unambitious computer expert who, through a fluke, became the sole vessel for all the government's spy secrets, was enjoyably tongue-in-cheek and geek-friendly. There were two major issues, however, that made me wonder how long it could last. There was, first of all, the sexual tension scenario that I already mentioned as being the most troubled aspect of Lost. Along similar lines and even more problematic was that the premise suffered from "Quantum Leap syndrome," in which the story's continuation seems to depend on the sustained misfortune of the main character. Although the show was lighthearted on the surface, I suspected this scenario would become a torment after a while, and I kind of hoped that it would wrap up sooner rather than later.

What struck me during the second season, though, was that the show was just consistently entertaining. Although essentially a monster-of-the-week program, it never felt too formulaic, and there were very few worthless episodes. And, by the season finale, it had actually made moves toward addressing both my complaints. I'm glad it will be back for another season, and I'm excited to see how things change going forward.

Truly a show with a guardian angel, Friday Night Lights is still "the best show on television," but even I'm not sure where else it can go with its fourth season. Some may argue that the story reached its logical conclusion when the Dillon Panthers won the high school championship at the end of the first season. I personally appreciated that the writers seemed to recognize that that was kind of a storybook ending that didn't show the whole picture. The second season played with the idea that winning the championship was one thing, holding onto it is another. This third season then followed with the sobering yet hopeful message that life goes on, and high school need not be the peak of it. Is there a fourth act to that story, especially now that nearly all of the original kids have graduated?

Lastly, I should mention the depressingly short-lived Kings. Why are there three freaking CSI shows, while nobody pays attention to something new and original like Kings? This contemporary alternate universe retelling of the story of King David felt like a feature film in its scope. Perhaps it was a little pretentious, but that grandiosity was essential to achieving the unparallelled mix of superb casting, artful dialogue, splendid costuming and stunning cinematography. Alas, not only will it not get a second season, but NBC won't even air the remaining episodes until maybe later in the summer. On the bright side, it didn't strike me as a story that absolutely had to last for years, and I'm hoping that, when or if the remaining episodes are broadcast, the ending might be semi-conclusive.

1 comment:

Czardoz said...

Sad. I was on the Friday Night Lights bandwagon from the beginning, but just ran out of time and resources to keep watching it.

I feel the same sad way about Supernatural. I caught an episode a few weeks ago, and it was good, but I felt like a jogger crossing the street and accidentally running into the Chicago Marathon. A great environment, but I couldn't just join in the middle, and I felt the need to just walk away.

And am I the only one who thinks that The Simpsons has gotten too overtly political and current affairs-oriented this past season? Too many flavor of the week gimmicks have been skewered recently on the show, but what's funny today won't be funny two or three years from now.

Ditto on the Dushku. She should follow all those Tru Calling DVDs to the landfill.

For consistent goodness, try 30 Rock and My Name is Earl. 30 Rock especially does the "current events skewering" thing especially well, but mixes it with a throwback, Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn-style slapstick/slaptalk that no other sitcom could even attempt.

Of the (surviving) shows that I watch regularly -

The Simpsons
The Office

- Chuck is easily my favorite. I thought they painfully flubbed the aftermath of the "Sarah executes Fulcrum agent while Chuck watches from the bushes" moment, but other than that, no missteps. Scott Bakula saying "Oh boy" upon Ellie's outburst - priceless.