Monday, December 25, 2006

Diana's Adventures In TV Land: Mid-Season Thoughts

Assorted season's greetings, one and all! This is Diana Kingston-Gabai, reporting live from the trenches of Wedded Bliss. Let me tell you, boys and girls - it ain't that different from Non-Wedded Bliss. :)

Now that I have some free time on my hands, and with the upcoming holidays setting all my current TV shows on hiatus, I figured this was a perfect opportunity to look back on "Veronica Mars", "Drawn Together", "Supernatural" and "Heroes". How are these series faring at the halfway mark?

I've gone a bit sour on Veronica Mars; while the post-Season 2 restructuring was a bold move, the first arc of S3 - Veronica vs. the Hearst Rapist - hasn't quite worked out. Leaving aside the somewhat-choppy pace of the big mystery, Veronica's habit of throwing about random accusations rather than engage in any real detective work, and the many many plotholes, there's been remarkably minimal characterization so far - half the cast members featured in the credits sequence were invisible. Nothing came of Dick's breakdown in the premiere; Mac and Weevil disappeared for long stretches of time; Wallace's screen time seems to decrease every season; and while newbies Parker and Piz had their moments, they didn't emerge as fully-rounded characters. That's a pretty big change from prior seasons - and not in the beneficial way Rob Thomas expected. When a recurring guest star like Ed Begley appears more often and garners more sympathy than veteran cast members, you've got a problem.

In a recent interview, Thomas evaluates the first season and states that a big part of its strength came from the fact that everyone was connected to Lilly Kane in some way. Those bonds let to very dramatic and emotionally intense moments, especially when smaller mysteries Veronica worked on led to another puzzle piece being unveiled, but it was a one-time deal - the Bus Mystery of season 2 failed to evoke that power because none of the established characters were really affected (except Meg, who'd become a bit of a bitch anyway). To make things worse, characters were gradually drawn into their own isolated subplots: Logan and Weevil with the Fitzpatricks, Duncan had Baby Lilly, Wallace met his father... and these events had no common link, nothing tying them into the larger storyline. By the third season, there's practically no cohesion left.

With some degree of discomfort, I also have to note that the show's been indulging its WB roots a bit too often lately. I'm referring to the Logan/Veronica relationship, which was subjected to a frankly ludicrous amount of melodramatic stress over the past nine episodes. To be fair, that's mostly due to plot compression, but looking back over past seasons, the writers don't seem to know how to approach Logan and Veronica as a couple. She tends to end up with him by default, and then they start going back and forth on an almost-daily basis. It wasn't so bad the first time around, as the relationship was still new and awkward enough to make instability seem credible; three years in, it's old and tired and I just don't believe it anymore, and I can't get away from it either because Logan's the only other character who has significant screen time.

The resolution of the Hearst Rapist arc was unsatisfactory, and this is actually something that's plagued the series since its inception. The basic contradiction at the heart of the show is this: Veronica is put across as a very intelligent and clever girl, someone with a gift for deductive thinking, but to sustain a season-long or arc-long mystery, she has to be clueless until the very end. What's emerged as a result is a pattern where Veronica makes stupid mistakes (she never thought to ask if Mercer's show was taped?), stumbles across that one crucial fact that comes out of nowhere (like the Aaron/Lilly sex tape of S1), figures it all out and gets victimized for ten or fifteen minutes until someone else bails her out. It's nice to see a vulnerable, fallible protagonist, but having her get kicked around for three seasons by a person no one even thought to suspect is a bit much.

Again, though, the creators are due credit for being open to change: rumor has it that after the next arc-long mystery, Thomas and company may choose to end the third season with a series of standalone tales. It'd make for a nice change of pace, and I'd certainly be glad to see things end on a high note for once.

Stunt Casting Count: There was a lot of that considering we're only nine episodes in. Despite my initial misgivings, Ed Begley turned out to do rather well as Cyrus O'Dell. Bringing in Laura San Giacomo (former co-star of Enrico Colantoni) as Keith's love interest was a very clever way of inducing chemistry between the characters. I don't watch "Gilmore Girls", so I suppose the Meeting of the Logans via Matt Czuchry was wasted on me. Richard Grieco as a washed-up voice actor... okay, that's just plain mean, but it's not like I can fault them for being inaccurate. As for Patty Hearst, well, the less said about that one, the better.


Supernatural has earned itself a bit of a backhanded compliment: I'm on pins and needles for the next episode, but only because I can't shake my conviction that the show's going to jump the shark by revealing that Sam isn't Dean's brother after all. I'd like to believe TV has learned from its past mistakes, but the cynic in me tends to doubt it.

And it'd be a shame, because while the series isn't breaking any ground or even excelling at what it does, it's still perfectly competent and servicable, despite an unusually high amount of angsty schmaltz - Dean, in particular, has developed an irritating tic of gradually approaching a meltdown only to back off at the last second. I suppose that, were I less charitable towarsd the cute boys, I'd praise the writers for recognizing that Jensen Ackles could never pull off that kind of deep emotion, so it's just as well... but then, you have to wonder why they insist on making the same point over and over again. With Sam repositioned as Dean's impromptu psychotherapist, the show seems to have become All About Dean's Daddy Issues. Good for three episodes, intolerable after nine. Sam's own development has ground to a halt, partly due to Jared Padalecki breaking his wrist in the fourth episode and partly because you can't very well have both protagonists falling apart simultaneously.

The supernatural element remains strong, though I seem to have misread where the show was going with regards to the Winchesters' nemesis. When I first evaluated the show, I was anticipating a "Big Bad" formula similar to the series' esteemed ancestor, which would require the Yellow-Eyed Demon to meet its end sooner rather than later. But it's looking more and more like the Demon is in fact the ultimate antagonist of "Supernatural", and it won't be going down until Eric Kripke's ready to end the show. I'm ambivalent about this: there's a reason that sort of thing went out of style, as - for the sake of drama if nothing else - you'd have to have your protagonists get close to defeating their enemy without actually doing any damage (those poor D&D kids never got the drop on Venger, did they?). On the other hand, this does give Kripke space to position the Demon as a mastermind-type and build up its plans over several seasons. It just might work, provided they don't overextend it.

Stunt Casting Count: Linda Blair as ghost-plagued cop Diana Ballard? Surprisingly cool and un-flinch-worthy (see above, re: Patty Hearst). Amber Benson as vampire queen Lenore? I'd been dying to see her play a villainess since her days as Tara Maclay on "Buffy" ("Conversations With Dead People" is still a sore spot for me), and she didn't disappoint. I don't know if Alona Tal and Samantha Ferris qualify, seeing as how there seems to be more to their roles than the actors attached to them (how much more is anyone's guest), but I'll go ahead and list them for now.


I'll preface any comment on Heroes by saying, flat-out, that I'm absolutely in love with this show. It's surpassed my every expectation, met every standard I held it to. It's provided a rich tapestry of interesting characters, meticulously structured plots, captivating action, cliffhangers worthy of Brian Vaughan, and - perhaps most importantly - a straight take on the subject matter. Postmodernity tends to bring out what I call Yellow Spandex Syndrome; even respectful adaptations such as Singer's "X-Men" films will occasionally poke fun at comics. I can understand that, considering the inherent silliness comics themselves indulge in far too often, but speaking as a woman who does read comics, and who wants to see them given more legitimacy, it's somewhat gratifying to see the notion of superpowers played at face value. Nobody has time for costumes and codenames, it's the people and the powers that matter. Even a character like Hiro, the consummate fanboy, is treated with respect. Sure, we could laugh at the fact that he salutes people with that Star Trek "V" hand gesture, but the script - and Masi Oka - make it impossible for us to be condescending about it. This is what the superhero genre should be (and never is) in the 21st century.

I find I'm even more enamored with something like "Heroes" or "The Incredibles", as examples of original superhero material, than even the best cinematic adaptation by Marvel or DC. Sure, you could make the argument that neither of the above is really original: the latter is clearly a Fantastic Four pastiche while the former has a close relationship to several Marvel properties, particularly X-Men. But solely in terms of execution, there's a freshness here that I can't seem to find in the mainstream.

The structure of the series bears further commentary: it's a lot neater and more organized than I'd thought possible. I honestly expected "Save The Cheerleader" to last throughout the season, but it's become clear that the series has in fact adopted an arc-like approach, similar perhaps to Grant Morrison's "New X-Men" in that the storylines are clearly defined and separate, yet they interlock to tell one epic story. Who knew having Jeph Loeb as a consultant could actually improve a series?

Pace is also something that's been maintained rather well throughout the eleven episodes aired thus far. What they've done is stagger the rate of progress for each storyline; Niki's arc, and Matt's, took a while to jump-start, but while they were "on hold" (so to speak), Peter was discovering his abilities and Claire was coping with her gift and Hiro was off to save the world, while Sylar lurked in the shadows. And when Niki got her moment in the spotlight, Peter and Isaac spent an entire episode trying to figure out which cheerleader they're meant to save. It's actually a very efficient technique, and this is where "Lost" went wrong: by having the numerous plotlines move at different speeds, they've assured that something is always happening, rather than sticking us in one point in time or with one character (like the second season spending its first three episodes repeating the same chain of events from different perspectives, with everything else put on hold).

The only character/plot who seems to have fallen through the cracks is Mohinder, and my guess would be that plans for him changed midway through because his arc has both slowed to a crawl and he's been disconnected from the rest of the cast. I'd be a little more irate about it were it not for the fact that Peter's a more than adequate substitute, in terms of functioning as protagonist/primary focalizer.

What can I say? If, when I first heard of "Heroes", the spectre of "Lost" loomed over my head, I now feel confident enough to declare this the Anti-Lost. Found, if you will. I suppose there's room still for it to all go horribly wrong, but based on the episodes that have aired so far, I'm going to predict a very strong opening season for this show.

Stunt Casting Count: None, really. The show's got a few recognizable faces like Ali Larter, Milo Ventimiglia and Greg Grunberg, but they're all primary cast members. There haven't been any specific guest stars who earned media attention, though we've got George Takei coming up and that's going to be all kinds of awesome.


It's funny how quickly humor can turn; at one time, I would've put Drawn Together down as one of the funniest shows I'd ever seen, but the third season hasn't done much for me so far.

It's partly because - for reasons I couldn't begin to fathom - they've dropped the Reality TV angle, opting instead for increasingly random subject matter. The last episode before the break featured a "Home Alone" sketch, of all things. In 2006? Really? I think not. That's kind of a problem, because as I mentioned before, it's the conceit of having all these mismatched characters acting like housemates on "The Real World" that generated so much comedy. It's not as funny when they're not competing in ridiculous contests or parodying certain tropes of reality TV ("the twist", stereotypes coming to light, producers intervening, etc.).

I'll probably be dropping this series after the third season; it depends on whether they'll bounce back after the break. It could just be a case of burn-out on the part of the writers.

Stunt Casting Count: None that I could tell.


And that wraps up my mid-season review! Hope you enjoyed it. :)

Coming in mid-January: Sententia gets relaunched! I've got some new (and old) TV shows saved up, along with BOOKS (yes, prose novels exist! And I've read some!) and at least one gay porno (because my bachelorette party just wouldn't have been the same without the dubious pleasure of "Stonewall and Riot"). Until then, happy holidays!