Friday, October 26, 2007

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: Opening Night

The article is way overdue: my time's being eaten up by the "Command and Conquer" series, which I recently discovered. More on that once I've completed the Tiberium trilogy...

Anyway, slight change of plans: I want to talk about first impressions today. Four new shows caught my attention when the fall season started: "Reaper", "Chuck", "Pushing Daisies" and "Bionic Woman". Originally, I was going to hold off evaluating them until mid-season, but after watching a few episodes of each, a pattern started to reveal itself and I want to explore that.

In a way, the big wave of premieres can be daunting if you're like me, on the lookout for entertaining material but unwilling to totally submerge yourself in crap to find it. But looking back, I find that most of the series I've enjoyed in recent years - "Heroes", "Veronica Mars", "Joan of Arcadia", "Rome", "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", etc. - started off with strong pilots and largely maintained that level of quality, at least for the first season. Conversely, series like "Supernatural", which vacillates from "eh" to "good" on a weekly basis but never quite reaches "great", had a thoroughly above-average series premiere. It's not so much that a pilot is the grand summation of everything the series will ever be... you have to make allowances that things will improve ("Buffy") or go completely downhill ("Lost"). But it's probably a fair indicator of a series' potential, of what it can and can't do.

With that in mind, let's turn to our first entry, Bionic Woman. I'll confess that my expectations for this one weren't high to begin with: with all due respect to Michelle Ryan, I've never seen her as lead material. She's a very limited actress who can't emote well and has no dramatic range to speak of, and that's a huge problem with character-centric series - "Heroes" could afford to drop the ball with Niki because there were plenty of other protagonists who were much more interesting, but "Bionic Woman" has to depict Jaime Sommers in a way that makes us want to learn more about her. I'm not feeling that way.

And the same can be said for the rest of the cast, none of whom are even marginally appealing: Jaime's sister is a brat, her boyfriend's dull as paste (and quickly becomes irrelevant in the overall scheme of things), the Typically Shadowy Figures of Authority are... well, typical shadowy figures of authority, and while Sarah Corvis has the potential to serve as an interesting antagonist, it's way too early to pull the "mirror rival" card - you're supposed to use that relationship to learn more about the protagonist, but Jaime's a piece of mechanical cardboard. And that, for me, is what kills my interest: I'm willing to wade through perfectly formulaic plots and premises if the characters stand out enough to overwhelm that tedium. "Bionic Woman" offers no such thing, so it's dropped.

Now, this is where Chuck got it partially right: the title character is an endearing computer nerd, and each of the supporting characters has at least one quality that makes them instantly likeable (well, except for Morgan). The issue I had with "Chuck", aside from the pattern I've noticed (which I promise we'll get to in a bit) isn't so much that I wasn't interested in the characters, it's that I wasn't interested enough. I mean, to be fair, the three episodes I saw had plenty of amusing moments, so the comedic aspect of the series was successful, but... I don't know. Even as I decided to stop watching it, I didn't actively dislike it - I still don't. Maybe it's the premise I have a problem with: as unique abilities go, having an NSA/CIA database in your head which causes you to spout secret facts like a covert op with Tourette's doesn't feel... spectacular enough, I suppose.

Oddly enough, if Reaper didn't have that aspect of flashy spectacle, it'd probably be an exact duplicate of "Chuck" in terms of format and cast configuration (more on that pattern I'll be talking about shortly). Broadly speaking, it's the same character - wage-slave loser with a touch of wit suddenly finding himself empowered and stuck with a new set of responsibilities, through no fault or initiative of his own. You have the supportive but ignorant family, the snarky mentor figure (Ray Wise vs. Adam Baldwin = scorched earth all around), the obnoxious best friend, the unattainable love interest, the intolerable manager... I think the only real difference is that the premise comes off a touch better here than in "Chuck" (and it's saying something that I find soul-selling and Satanic bounty hunters more plausible than having a computer stuck in a guy's brain), although the trade-off is that, with "Reaper", the characters lean a bit more towards stock qualities than having that individual charm Zachary Levi and his co-stars possess. To be totally honest, it's kind of a problem when the only character I genuinely like is Ray Wise's weirdly affectionate version of the Devil; my fondness for "Brimstone" also does "Reaper" no favors as far as comparisons go.

Which brings us to Pushing Daisies, the only new show I'm still watching. As I told my pal Tink the other day, "Pushing Daisies" is like having late-era Tim Burton throw up on my TV: bright colors, quirky weirdness a-plenty, impromptu musical numbers, and the kind of urban fantasy style straight out of "Edward Scissorhands" (minus the Gothic imagery). Of all the new shows, "Pushing Daisies" made the most positive impression on me, mainly because it's not like anything that's currently on TBV. Comparisons have been made to "Wonderfalls", Bryan Fuller's previous project, but I think "Pushing Daisies" is superior to its predecessor by virtue of having all the elements necessary for a successful run - in fact, one could say it combines the individual qualities each of the aforementioned shows has, possessing all their strengths and none of their weaknesses. The characters are instantly loveable (Lee Pace as Ned just breaks my heart on a regular basis, but Chi McBride's bitchy rendition of Emerson is just as captivating), the writing is quick and witty, the general weirdness is just obvious enough to get our attention without completely overwhelming the story, and if it seems to lack a general direction... well, that's the sort of thing I don't mind waiting for, especially since the show's doing everything else right.

And now, let's move on to the pattern. Is it me, or do all these series revolve around the premise of a completely ordinary person granted some wildly outrageous superpower, through no fault of his or her own, which ends up redefining their life? There's a definite post-"Heroes" trend here, IMO. Of course, we can also ask whether these entries constitute homages to the superhero genre; it's pretty much the same formula as Spider-Man's accidental genesis, or the mutant scenario where you hit puberty and become a freak of nature. It's interesting to analyze what lies behind the trend: there's an implicit suggestion that when accidents elevate people beyond the level of humanity, they're going to do good deeds with it. They'll become heroes, and they'll take that "great power, great responsibility" equation seriously, and while they may be tempted to misuse their abilities, they never will. It's a comforting notion, perhaps aimed at re-establishing the image of the Self-Sacrificing Hero (which, in the last decade or so, took a bit of a step back in favor of the Anti-Hero).

But as with any trend, the great danger is collision between all the individual series following the guidelines: with the exception of "Pushing Daisies", which takes Ned's unique talent in an entirely different light, pretty much all the shows are typical and derivative of each other. The protagonists of "Chuck" and "Reaper" are virtually identical in terms of their primary characteristics; the angle skews towards "Monster/Threat of the Week" more often than not; antagonists are cookie-cutter figures with no real depth of their own. In this situation, it comes down to charisma: which actor can keep me watching the show in spite of its unoriginality? More importantly, is it the right actor? Like I said, Ray Wise is fabulous as the Devil - but he doesn't score nearly enough screen time to justify watching "Reaper" for his scenes.

An underwhelming season for debuts, then; of course, as I said, there's still plenty of room for improvement, and it's altogether likely that one of the them (well, probably not "Bionic Woman") will reel me back in. Until then, "Pushing Daisies" joins "Dexter", "Supernatural", "Heroes" and "Weeds" on my list of must-see TV.