Pasadena, Danny, Thieves

Every couple years, I find myself with a real guilty pleasure primetime soap to watch, something all made up of artificial relationships and manipulated situations, yet with a certain bounce to its trashiness, and perhaps a willingness to explore something that is not usually explored in trashy primetime soaps. Dawson’s Creek. Hyperion Bay. Yet what happens is this: six episodes of good trashiness, then a quick slide down into crappy trashiness, in which every possible combination of romantic pairings is introduced and exhausted for no good reason except that they need things they haven’t done. The show was pitched with the initial six episodes plotted out, I reckon; they hadn’t need to structure it beyond the six to make the sale, and there’s not enough depth there to go beyond.

Friday’s premiere of PASADENA, a new ABC primetime soap, gives me hope for something more. The foreshadowing narration makes it clear that the events we are seeing are leading to certain specific things a year down the road, giving me hope that they sold this with at least a rough plot for a full first season. I may get 24 episodes of enjoyable trash out of this one.

First, let me set up my relationship with this series: I lived in Pasadena for about 7 years, and still go there frequently. I know Pasadena, from the floatilla of Chinese-speaking students who attend the large Pasadena City College (alma mater to Stan Freberg and Eddie Van Halen) and hang out at the Pak-Mann Arcade, to the million dollar homes overlooking the Rose Bowl. I know it from the Spanish-speaking day laborers hanging out on the corners of Villa Street to the once-funky-artsy stores of Old Town that have been replaced with major chain outlets to take advantage of all the people who had been coming for the funky-artsy stuff. I lived directly between the path of the Rose Parade (which causes the sidewalks to be so densely populated with sleeping people the night before that it looks like the world’s worst homeless problem) and the campus of CalTech (where all are nerds but some of the nerds are unspeakably beautiful.) But I sure don’t know the Pasadena seen in this series (filmed in Canada except apparently for a few exteriors, notably an all-too-limited shot of the world’s most beautiful city hall), the severely race-and-class-stratified country-club society, where non-white faces are somehow unseen. This may be some other place. It may (or may not) be Grosse Point. But it sure ain’t Pasadena.

But if you’re looking for realism, this isn’t the place to look. If you’re looking for the ugly inner-workings of a family of hidden, overwrought corruption viewed through the opening eyes of the family’s fifteen year old daughter, then this is a series for you. Photographed better than it deserves, we’re watching the bland exteriors of an L.A. newspaper magnate’s clan get pulled away to reveal the various forms of darkness beneath. The process is apt to be slow, but it has the potential for fun, and despite the warning of erudite reviewers I find myself wanting to see what happens next. (Hey, how could I not want to find out what happens to a character named Nate who is just like me — living off of large amounts of unearned wealth, brooding, going around in fast cars to buy hard drugs, it’s uncanny!)

But should this series last beyond however-many-episodes-they-pitched, I’m sure my interest will quickly disappear.

DANNY was put together by the same advertiser coalition for positive programs that brought us The Gilmore Girls, and it shares some of the feel of that show (despite being half its length). It is, however, missing Gilmore Girls’s central charm, the relationships between the continuing characters. The titular Danny (played by the voice that haunted The Wonder Years, Daniel Stern) is the founder/head of a boisterous community center. He is a dreamer of a man who is kept to earth and on his toes by the goings-on around him, yet never battered down. We meet his loving family, his enthused-but-not-always-responsible employees, and his gruff-but-not-bad-hearted boss — no true nasty characters to be found in this show. But those are all just backdrop to the central character. There are some amusing moments here, but they work on the level of concept (what one does with a roomful of little girls in ballerina outfits when they don’t want to learn to dance); little of the humor arises from character or dialog. So this show is polished-looking and aggressively inoffensive, but it needs to develop an actual heart or theme in order to rise out of its blandness. Don’t avoid this show, but don’t go to great efforts to watch it either.

THIEVES takes the basic Neil Simon formula (take two people with strong similarities, strong differences, and equal levels of passion and force them to be together) and applies it to an action series. They’re both good-looking high-end thieves. He’s a man of finesse and delicacy, she’s a proponent of brute force and technology, and they’re forced together to work for the good guys (the government). They bicker constantly, but always in ways full of both acknowledged and unacknowledged romantic tension.

The problem with the pilot lies in that “constantly” aspect. Between and amidst a-okay crime/con bits, the bickering blanketed the show. There was no room for subtlety and certainly no time for things to build. This tension should be the undercurrent of the series and it certainly should be the touchpoint of the series but it shouldn’t simply *be* the series. Later episodes will show us whether every one is destined to be a repeat of the pilot, or whether they’ll let the individual plots carry each with the romantic tensions simmering, perhaps eventually coming to a boil. (And before anyone raises the ever-present specter of Moonlighting: No, bringing Dave’n’Maddie finally to a boil did not kill that series. Quite the opposite, it brought us that series at its best. In the wake of that, however, the series was beset with production problems including pregnancy and injuries; throw a couple of awkward creative decisions on top of that, and that’s where the lack of a clear and effective direction for the show came in. Anyone who does not believe that good stuff could have been done if it wasn’t for those problems should go out and rent some of the Thin Man movies.)

Saturday saw the premiere of CITIZEN BAINE. Saturday did, but I didn’t; a failure of the antenna hooked to my second VCR lead to a unviewable recording. I’ll try to review episode 2 when it rolls around (although I expect to be doing a bit of traveling at that time, and my reviews may well lag by quite a bit.)

Published in: on September 30, 2001 at 6:19 pm  Comments Off  

Inside Schwartz, The Agency

I’m not saying that I’ve been watching too much TV, but I just stared blankly for five minutes thinking “I know I watched two new shows last night, The Agency and… and… and…”

The “and…” was INSIDE SCHWARTZ, which is situated in the deadly 8:30 Thursday NBC slot. When you get that slot, you know you’re going to get the highest ratings of any show cancelled that year. Being sandwiched between Friends and Will & Grace is such a gimmie, ratingswise, but they never quite find the show that will actually bring in viewers who weren’t watching those other two shows. That timeslot is cursed. Excuse me, that timeslot is the weber show.

This new show is about a would-be sportscaster who obsesses over his old girlfriend. Now think about the way an overexcited color man talks (note to those who don’t watch sports: no, I’m not talking about a colored man.) Now imagine hanging around for a half hour with someone who talks in that overstressed tone the whole time. Get to be annoying? I think so.

The gimmick of this show is that Schwartz’s interior monolog is all done as sports metaphor, with famed sportscasters commenting on his life, referees and fames sportsfolk showing up to comment on what’s going on. This didn’t get old as quickly as I thought it would, simply because they used it a little less than I thought… but I will be shocked if this gimmick is still in the show in 13 weeks. It’s an even bet whether the show itself will be around that long.

I expect this show will get a few complaints from Jewish groups. Schwartz is Jewish, but the real point of complaint would be (SPOILERS AHEAD! FEEL FREE TO SKIP IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THE EPISODE AND ARE WAITING TO WATCH YOUR TAPE OF IT) the lead character’s dad, who is presumably Jewish, is horribly enthusiastic about ham (a no-no in traditional Judaism) and who hires a prostitute for his son. I wasn’t offended, but the awkwardness of the ham part really got to me. The prostitution part reminds me how my maternal grandfather responded to my mother’s announcement that she was marrying a Jewish boy by saying “you know it’s the Jews who keep the hookers in business, right?”

I’m not a sports fan, by and large. In the typical year, I watch one televised football game and maybe 4 stock car races, and go to one live sporting event. But I’m not inherently against sports-related fiction — certainly, the average baseball movie is better than the average baseball game, and I was a big fan of Sports Night. I was rarely lost by the sports references (there’s one baseball player who I was unfamiliar with), but I wasn’t amused by them either. There is some talent among the cast members, but I’ll be glad when The Tick starts up and gives me something to watch at 8:30 on Thursdays.

THE AGENCY is about the CIA. Automatically, that sounds problematic, since you can’t really do a CIA show without taking some sort of stand on their morality. The stance here seems to be “old CIA bad, current CIA good”, although in this episode it’s really just doing whatever they are told by those higher up. Despite a good cast (this is a good year for people I like getting work — this cast include Rocky Carroll and David Clennon) this was not a show I was looking forward to, nor did it win me over. The central flaw is that it was about the agency, rather than the people who work there. While there were attempts made to build human interest around the people, it still felt more like a tale of a bureaucracy. Not a thrill. And the convolutions of espionage and international relations make it hard to root for anything in the show.

Published in: on September 28, 2001 at 6:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Enterprise

My wife has a thing for Scott Bakula. That’s not vital to the review, but I just thought I’d mention it.

I no longer feel the urge for more Star Trek. When there were just three seasons of oft-rerun Trek, the thought of more Trek sounded good. Now there are dozens of seasons and a pile of feature films, and I cannot say the world is hurting for lack of Trek. Still, the thought of seeing the early days, when mankind was first encountering aliens, unsure how to react in the face of such strong unknowns…

But as it turns out, that is not this story. Humans have known the Vulcans for a long time, and the Vulcans have a lot of knowledge about what’s out there. So the sheer adventure, the sheer mystery, is gone.

The series doesn’t fit into the feel of Trek history as I see it. Rather than being a bold race who reached out from their planet, the humans are a race whose reach for the stars is enabled and controlled by Vulcans.

Bakula is a captain in Kirk mode — he’s not there to oversee the ship, the ship is there to provide support for his own direct involvement. He seems more like a good lone wolf inappropriately given a captain’s rank. The vulcan science officer and the supporting humans didn’t really grab me; the only character I found myself perking up for was the ship’s overenthusiastic alien doctor.

They’ve already set up a big villain for the series, and seemingly in an attempt to bring us a different big villain, they have made it a time-control villain. In less than precise hands, time control lends itself to very poor stories, and trying to dictate the ongoing villain before the series has had time to find itself seems less than wise.

I don’t anticipate needing to watch this… but my wife may feel the need to get a Bakula fix, so I may well end up seeing it anyway.

Published in: on September 27, 2001 at 6:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Ellen Show, Crossing Jordan

A homosexual leaves the big city to rejoin disfunctional family in small town America. Do this with ugly overtones, and you get John Goodman’s entry in last year’s Disappointing Sitcoms With Talented Stars derby. Do this with an upbeat bounce, and you get CBS’s watchable-though-not-amazing The Ellen Show.

The promotional material for this show suggested that they would be downplaying the gay theme, which worried me. After all, Ellen Degeneres’s previous show These Friends Of Mine (later renamed Ellen) was a horrible example of a pointless sitcom *until* they introduced the gay theme, at which point it became actually *about* something, giving it a wellspring of humor. However, the homosexuality is not ignored. SPOILER WARNING FOR THOSE WAITING TO WATCH IT FROM TAPE. Some fun is had with Ellen’s old room having been decked out in protolesbian chic (Wonder Woman and Billie Jean King posters), and a running gag through the episode is about the butch gym teacher at the local school who is instantly smitten with Ellen, presumably because she’s the only other lesbian in town now. (There’s a fine comedy song with this lonely theme, “The Only Gay Eskimo”.)

There were a few laugh-out-loud moments in this show (including one rather obvious joke that I fell for), but the emotional context really wasn’t involving. Ellen’s decision to stay back home didn’t come from any vast emotional truth, but was mere sitcom set-up. Okay, they’ve got it set up, now let’s see what they do with it. This show isn’t on my definite long-term watch list, but it’ll get at least another couple episodes to make its case.

Sitcom fans should note that the series regular include Cloris Leachman, Martin Mull, and Jim Gaffigan (the relatively unknown centerpiece of last year’s Welcome To New York, which managed to waste the talents of Christine Baranski, Rocky Carroll, and Sarah Gilbert.)

Also debuting on Monday was Crossing Jordan, about an overenthusiastic medical examiner who can’t keep a job because she keeps expanding her examination beyond its proper limits, trying to solve murders herself. The characters are good; comics writer Miguel Ferrer, as her boss, is fun to watch (as always), and it’s nice to see Ken “The White Shadow” Howard again, playing her ex-cop dad. The actual plot for this one was rather clumsily done (which was what drove me away from CSI after one episode — CSI’s success being the obvious reason for this show’s existence), and the casting of Kyle Secor in a guest role actually telegraphed part of the plot. However the character stuff was nice enough that I will be revisiting it. Perhaps the plots will be better now that they have the set-up out of the way.

Published in: on September 26, 2001 at 1:07 am  Comments Off  

Emeril, Undeclared, Philly, The Guardian, Dead Last

Note: the original date of this post has been misplaced. I tried datestamping it as best I could, but the date may be off by a couple days.

Tuesday night was a two-VCR night… and even so, The Lovely Lara seemed a bit disappointed that I hadn’t taped the Michael J. Fox guest appearance on Spin City as well (even though we weren’t watching the series at the end when he was on it, due in large part to the presence of comedic void Heather Locklear.)

Sitcoms seem to break down into two camps: those that come from the humor of a character’s ridiculousness seeming real (say, All In The Family or Frasier) and those that come from the character’s reality seeming ridiculous (Get Smart.) The new show Emeril has no real characters to be interested in, so it would have to tend toward the later camp, but the ridiculous stuff isn’t funny enough to qualify. Note to TV followers: Robert Urich is in this series, in a supporting role. He’s had new series in ’98, ’96, ’93, ’92, ’90… and then you get back to the point when he was in successful series — one that ran ’85-’88, oh okay his ’82 series was a flop, but then we have one that ran ’78-’81, one that ran ’77-’81 that he left at the end of the first season, a ’77 flop, a well-remembered ’75-’76 series, and a ’73 flop. If you can name them all, I pity you. But you gotta respect the man’s ability to get work.

SPOILERS FOLLOW: UNDECLARED The sitcom Undeclared is firmly in the real-seeming camp. This one comes from Judd Apatow of Freaks & Geeks fame, so I was predisposed to like it. It’s about the kids on one floor of a freshman college dorm. Some kids are freaking out about it, some are vibing on the groove, and our central character is dealing with his own illusions that he is suddenly no longer a geek — as well as dealing with his mother’s sudden plans for divorce and his father’s embarrassing ongoing presence on campus. The cast on this one has a couple interesting folks: Seth Rogen, who was great as the odd-voiced freak on Freaks&Geeks, is here, and the father is played by musician Loudon Wainwright III.

This is the best show I’ve seen in the new season, by a long shot. The embarrassment, the excitement, the awkwardness, I remember it all, and it was all like this.

(For those of you who watched it, I’m registering a prediction now: Lloyd, the student with the girl-winning British accent, who was wearing the British flag shirt? My money says that within the first six episodes, it will be revealed that he’s American. Why do I think that? Because the accent gets the girls, because wearing the flag shirt was showy, because he’s a theater major… and because I pulled something very similar one year at school, when I was there among a floatilla of new freshwomen.)

PHILLY is set mostly in Philadelphia’s city hall, where I’ve been quite a few times (mostly in the courtyard and pedestrian walkways that pass through the building, but a couple of times on the inside.) So I want to like it. And I do like the casting — anyone who casts Tom Everett Scott, the eerily Tom Hanks-like lead from That Thing You Do, gets my support. But this lawyer show is supposed to be a serious drama, and yet the court room scenes are at best as real as those on Ally McBeal. The lawyers and the judges are all acting in ways that seem ridiculous even to that lay eye (and from what I hear, the legal eye echoes that even more strongly.) I would not be watching another episode of this… if it wasn’t for the fact that the L.A. Times review says that episode 2 is far far better.

I really wanted to like THE GUARDIAN. A couple months back, I was having drinks with a couple of the series stars and the director (who also showed up in one scene), and they seemed such nice folks, and I know that they’re talented. And the concept is okay. But when people first appear here, they don’t tell you their name, they tell you their agenda. And they are all harsh and unreasonable and frequently unethical in their pursuit of causes good and evil. This is a series about a high-priced corporate lawyer who is tried on a drug charge and is sentenced to probation and 1500 hours of community service working for a group of child advocacy lawyers. The sentencing judge actually tells him that he’ll be taking his experience from corporate law and using it to help these kids. Excuse me?!? You don’t have to be a legal expert (which we will politely assume the judge to be) to realize that corporate law and family law are about as far apart on the law map as two categories can get. Sure, if the kids need to set up an accelerated depriciation of their assets or set up proper bond authorization, this lawyer might be useful, but beyond that?

I’ll probably look in on this one a few episodes down the road, see if they’ve gotten the bumps out of the concept (and if the supposedly Pittsburg-born lead can keep from letting his Australian accent leak out.) But I cannot recommend it.

I actually missed the pilot of DEAD LAST at some point (which is not the biggest surprise I’m facing — tonight I discovered the existence of a returning series that I had never heard of before, UPN’s Special Unit 2.) They did give enough expository, however: the three members of a small-time traveling rock band gain the ability to interact with ghosts. Most folks who gain this ability want to help the ghosts settle their problems, so that they can move on to the heaven or whatever. This series from Steve Pink, D.V. DeVincentis and our own Patrick O’Neill (okay, probably a different one) reminds me of some self-published black and white comics: amateurish and awkward and yet with an enthusiastic energy, not firing on all cylinders but getting some interesting sparks from time to time. It could be a lot tighter, and probably would be more effective in a half hour. Not something I can actually endorse, but something that I would look in on from time to time, if I thought it had any life in it. However, it’s airing in the timeslot that Smallville takes over shortly, which ain’t a good sign. Worse yet, the WB’s website listing for the show, in the area where it lists what show is coming next, says “The next episode of Dead Last has yet to be determined.” That can’t be good.

Published in: on September 25, 2001 at 12:09 am  Comments Off  

The Education of Max Bickford

Due to a phone call, my wife missed a fair portion of last night’s premier of THE EDUCATION OF MAX BICKFORD. A minute after she rejoined the show, she asked “is this as overwrought as it seems?” “Well, it’s certainly got a lot of wrought…” I replied.

I guess I’d better put up a SPOILER WARNING for those who taped the episode but have not watched it yet. During this episode, we learn that Professor Max Bickford (played by the ever-convincing Richard Dreyfus) is a recovering alcoholic widower who is passed over for promotion for a student he had carnal knowledge of 15 years before, who is being forced into a department management position that he doesn’t want, whose daughter announces a missed period, whose best friend took a sabbatical and has just come back with a new gender, whose students are uncaring, inattentive, and demand unearned grades, and whose son doesn’t make the basketball team. And oh yes, Max is writing a novel, a thinly veiled version of his life, only he is named “Skylar” in the book. And the novel is bad. Not a lot of subtlety in bringing him to a low point that he has to rebuild himself from.

To be fair, I’m not sure that the novel is *supposed* to be bad, so maybe that isn’t supposed to be part of his miserable life. My wife was quite annoyed with the on-going narrative of events that comes from Max composing the novel. I liked it though, because I thought it perfectly captured the sort of lousy novel I would expect from a burned-out professor who was seeking to redeem himself by reprocessing his life at fiction at age 50-something.

So it’s overwrought… but it is well made. The cast is strong, the dialog is generally good. The real question is: now that they’ve got the lead character striving upward, will their be good plots along that path? I’ll give this series at least a few more episodes to find out. I like Dreyfus, and this is a project with the aroma of quality (if accompanied by the stench of trying a bit too hard to be Greatly Respectable Material. Dreyfus said that he considered going into TV at this time because of the example that The West Wing has set, but that show launched with a lot of fun built in, and fun is something missing from this new show.)

Give it a try. Things to watch for in the pilot: Ron Glass from Barney Miller plays another professor, although apparently his is not a regular character on the series. And Max’s 12-step sponsor runs a classic auto restoration shop, so there’s a scene with some nice cars to ogle.

Published in: on September 24, 2001 at 12:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Wolf Lake

While the real start of the new TV season has been delayed until next week, a new show did premiere on Wednesday.

WOLF LAKE features Lou Diamond Phillips as a cop whose fiancee disappears after a violent incident, and the trail leads him to a small town where Things Are Not What They Seem (Except To The Audience, For Whom Its Not Very Subtle.)

There was something about this that didn’t feel quite like a TV show, nor quite like a movie. Then it hit me: it felt like a computer adventure game, from the early days of graphic adventures. Constant mood music plays. “You enter the restaurant. You cannot find a waitress. The place is deserted except for a single customer, a friendly gent, seemingly an American Indian. ‘Is that a .39 or a 9 milimeter you have?’ he asks. How do you respond?”

SAY WHAT?

“‘Strapped to your ankle,’ says the grinning man, letting you know that he has picked up on you and recognized you as a cop.”

ITS A 38

I do not understand the command ITS

SAY ITS A 38

“‘Oh, an old-fashioned type of guy!'”

ASK FOR WAITRESS

“The grinning man plays with what appears to be a hard-boiled egg. ‘This late, the place is on the honor system. Go to the refrigerator and take what you want.'”

HEAD TO KITCHEN

“As you head to the kitchen door, the grinning man says ‘Be careful of Rusty!'”

OPEN DOOR

“The door bonks against the head of a man asleep on the floor. This must be Rusty.”

TURN BACK

“The grinning man has mysteriously disappeared, but the egg is still on the table, spinning on end.”

Filled with mysteriousness but lacking mystery, echoing touches of Twin Peaks without catching the bizarrity of it, unable to evoke a convincing small town, Wolf Lake is on worth skipping… particularly since it seems unlikely to last long enough to reach whatever mysterious core they’re aiming to explore.

Published in: on September 11, 2001 at 5:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

One on One

Most seasons, there is one new series that rushes to beat all the others onto the scene, and usually it rushes off the scene just as quickly. That would be a deserving fate for ONE ON ONE, a new “urban” comedy on the WB. The concept is the “suddenly I have kids to take care of” plot that has been surfacing a lot in recent years. In this case, it’s a divorced dad whos eex-wife leaves the country, suddenly leaving him as the primary caregiver (and what a monkey wrench it tosses in the gears of his hyperactive love life!)

The characters don’t take time to be characters, they spend their lives being non-stop insult machines, and not particularly amusing ones at that. They’re not intriguing, they’re not involving, and they’re not amusing. Skip this one.

Published in: on September 11, 2001 at 1:45 am  Leave a Comment  
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