Season-to-date overview

It’s been a couple weeks since I last posted a review, but that doesn’t mean that the TV season is all here yet. We’re still waiting on Fox to get past their World Series coverage and launch their new series. The most visible damage caused by Fox’s delay is the lack of a Simpsons Halloween episode this year. Still, with more than a decade’s worth of Halloween specials, it is clear that the little yellow family still owns that holiday. We’re also waiting on the premieres of 24, The Tick, and The Bernie Mack Show, all of which will surface in the coming month. Still, we’re more than a month into the new season, and it’s time to reflect some on it.
This season has not set the world ablaze, to put it mildly. There is no big standout hit. The highest rated show of the new season, Inside Schwartz, is being put on hiatus during the November sweeps period, and that’s bad. (It is, however, unsurprising — as I noted in my review of that lackluster program, it 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.”) The second-highest rated show is The Guardian, and yet there seems to be little enthusiasm behind the
viewings. Perhaps today will prove me wrong, but I doubt I’ll see many trick-or-treaters today in The Guardian costumes. In terms of aroused
enthusiasm, about the only show that qualifies is Smallville.
Danny is gone, Wolf Lake is on hiatus, Emeril is visiting Wolf Lake… no great losses among that bunch.
The creators of The Education of Max Bickford have abandoned ship, and only time will tell if that will improve
this desperately-wants-to-be-a-little-better-than-it-is show.
I’ve taken some looks back into some of the shows I panned, and have felt no need to revise my opinions. (But damn, I wish
someone would edit Citizen Baines down to just the parts with the title character, dropping out all
the incompetent nincompoopery of the daughters. It would only be 10 minutes long, but it would be worth watching.)
Even returning shows I like have suffered; Ed has lost its rhythm and become merely whiny, Frasier has
raised its touchy-feely-to-humor ratio (although I have no complaints about having Peri Gilpin spend an entire episode
in a Wonder Woman costume!), and even Buffy has lost a bit of context, sliding from being about a group that
saves the world to being about a group that saves themselves (although this week’s was a bit better.)
But that’s not to say that there are no bright spots. Scrubs lives up to its early promise. I’ve come to
realize that while other shows made the mistake of swiping Malcolm in the Middle‘s concept, Scrubs
has borrowed some of its visual style, and mixed it with strong writing to bring on something good. Pasadena
is still watchably trashy. The Ellen Show can still be saved.

A couple tips:

  1. Buffy was being rerun one episode per night on the cable network FX, and now it’s upped to two episodes per night. As good as watching that
    series is normally, it’s even better when you can glut yourself on it, totally submerging yourself
    into the series by watching 5 to 10 sequential hours of it per week. Yes, I’m finding some small inconsistancies I hadn’t
    noticed before, but I’m also uncovering richness and small references that went past me. It’s interesting seeing
    how frequently Jonathan appeared before being important, for example.
  2. The most aggressively discussed show of the season, 24, is scheduled on Tuesday — a night already
    overflowing with TV worth watching (Buffy, Gilmour Girls, Undecided, Frasier, Scrubs, Smallville.) However, each
    week’s episode will be rerun on FX network the following Monday, an otherwise-dead TV night. While I’m going to watch the first episode “live”
    (so I can review it), I expect I’ll watch the rest of them on these instant reruns.

Published in: on October 31, 2001 at 6:41 pm  Comments Off  

American Dreams

It is difficult to judge AMERICAN DREAMS off of the first episode.
This is a family drama, and like most family dramas, it is about a family which
is fraying at the edges. It is set during the Kennedy administration, in
Philadelphia (a fact that they pound into you with repeated naming of
the local sports teams and with an awkward invocation of the term “cheese
steak hoagie”; one is left wondering whether they are aware that this is
not the same thing as a “cheese steak”, or whether they just included it
because it had the Philly terms “cheese steak” and “hoagie”). The family father watches his
perfect family start to crumble, as his wife starts yearning for unnamed
things beyond middle-class motherdom, his eldest son tired of being the
football star and thus dashes his scholarship chances, and his eldest
daughter aims to appear on American Bandstand. It is the last that
brings the series its gimmick, the integration of old Bandstand footage
with much work put into getting around that they can’t directly show Dick Clark
in the modern footage (as he does look a full 7 years older now than he did
then.)

And then, in a startling twist at the end of the episode,
President Kennedy gets killed off, and their world will never be the same!

This first episode is well constructed, the fraying of the family
well documented. But the question is not whether they can fray the family,
but rather what do they do with the family once it is frayed. That’s what
makes a good drama series, and that is something that time will have to tell.
(If they have time to tell it, that is; off the top of my head, I’m having
trouble thinking of any recent successful hour-long primary network dramas set in the past.
The last one that comes to mind is China Beach, and before that I
find myself dredging up John-Boy and Lara Ingalls Wilder.)

It’s been a long day; watching and reviewing Boomtown will
probably have to wait until tomorrow.

Published in: on October 29, 2001 at 7:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

Smallville

SMALLVILLE has a tricky balance to find. It’s trying to be, while not a serious drama, a serious melodrama,
standing alongside the Dawson’s Creeks and Pasadenas of this world. And yet, because it is about Superman
in his teen years, it is filled out with superhero action (in street clothes, as young Clark Kent does not yet
have his cape and skintights) and requisite supernatural menaces.

This is not a balance that is quite achieved the first time out. The superaction elements make the
melodrama seem unimportant, while the melodrama makes the action seem cheesy. It’s hard to care
about will-she-kiss-him as a dramatic point while the electricity-weilding murderer is on the loose.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer (which this replaces on the WB schedule) can balance the drama and
the action by filtering both through a layer of humor, a layer which Smallville lacks, probably to its
deteriment.

And yet, there are things to be said for it. The young lead looks the part, although he lacks
a steely-eyed look of determination that Superman needs to be able to summon up. He does
have a reasonable lost-Clark look, and wears it most of the time. The acting is all reasonable,
if never quite inspiring. And the look of the piece is strong; at least for the pilot, the spend the
necessary money.

This could turn out to be okay, and yet I fear it will not. There are writers who can integrate
the super and the real, but they are mostly writing comics. TV writers may not know the pitfalls.
There are already hints of an over-reliance on a single chunk of Kryptonite, needed to keep
SuperClark from saving the day. Even in the pilot, the reasons for the K to be in various hands
(and four people have had it by the end of the episode) strain credulity; imagine what difficulties
they will face by episode 12.

I’ll check out at least a couple more episodes; I want to see what defines Lex as a villain
beyond self-destructively careless driving and penchant for wearing black. Certainly, for superhero
readers it’s worth taking a look at.

Published in: on October 17, 2001 at 6:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

Men, Women, and Dogs, Off Centre,

Dogs are not made of metal.

This may not come as a surprise to you, but it apparently is not information that was available
to the makers of MEN, WOMEN, AND DOGS, one of two new sitcoms on the WB tonight. A dog being carried under a jacket
sets off both a standing metal detector and a hand-held one.

And if you think they don’t know much about dogs, you’d be surprised at how little they know
about men and women. True, their flaws are mostly men, because the women rarely have a chance at a human
reaction. The men, however, are the true dogs of the series, each with a different method of interacting
with women but none treating them as human. And I’m not saying that there aren’t men who don’t treat
women as human, and I’m not even saying that there’s no room for humor from that — but the men here are
neither realistic nor humorous. The central conceit (men who hang out at a dog park mainly to meet women)
is not a good basic concept, and producer/star Bill Bellamy seems to be acting in a broader show than
the rest of the cast. And the obviously-dubbed laugh track seems to be watching a much funnier
show.

Some folks may recall that last year’s new comedy NIKKI gave me hope that The WB might finally be
able to produce a good sitcom, and so I had particular wished that they would show this with OFF CENTRE,
since it follows immediately after Nikki at a time when no other shows start.
The show has a reasonable premise — mild-mannered-and-involved American lives with British
playboy in a swanky urban apartment. Unfortunately, the two lead actors make their roles
horribly unappealing. The British lead has a grating voice and the American doesn’t seem to have
the camera and timing awareness to make the part work. (If you do watch the show, close your eyes
while he’s talking, though, and see if you don’t hear the voice of St. Elsewhere’s David Morse.)
Some of the supporting cast and bit players acquit themselves well, and the writing approaches
usable but misses — they need to learn that they don’t have to explain their jokes.

By my count, that leaves three new shows that still have not premiered… but they’re the
three I’m most looking forward to, so keep your eyes peeled for the reviews.

Published in: on October 14, 2001 at 6:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

Citizen Baines

The launching of new series has trickled down. There are still
a few key players waiting to launch, including such anticipation-inspiring
entries as THE TICK, 24, and SMALLVILLE.

And yet, the destruction derby has already begun. If you were
waiting until DANNY got better to give it a try, you’re going
to wait a long time. This show has been dropped from the
schedule after all of 2 episodes.

There have been no new qualifying premieres since my last
posting. However, I had missed the premiere of CITIZEN BAINES,
but I managed to catch episode 2 this weekend. Oscar winner
James Cromwell (who I still picture as Stretch Cunningham,
Archie Bunker’s coworker from the loading dock) stars as a
Congressman who has just been voted out of office, and now
has to deal with his own lack of direction and with the
presence of his three grown daughters.

The daughters all have exagerated personality, making them
seem more like personal obstacles than like true characters.
Cromwell does an admirable job of showing that he is slowly
realizes that there are new possibilities and opportunities
that come along with this loss of direction and official power.
The problem with this episode is that in portraying his loss
of position and direction, the tale doesn’t go much of anywhere,
except for a nicely-done obvious symbolic moment at the end.
I’ll look in on this one again (hey, it’s Saturday night,
there’s nothing else on!) and the odds seem good that it
will get better or at least grow on me.

Published in: on October 10, 2001 at 6:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reba, Maybe It's Me, Raising Dad, Scrubs note

The Simpsons is an unusual animated show. The entire
cast generally records the character voices together.
In most cartoons, the various voice actors record their
lines separately, and they’re edited together later.
In some cases, the actors haven’t even been able to
see the entire script, but only read their own lines
out of context. This can create some rather stiff
readings that don’t integrate well with the
performances of the rest of the cast.

REBA is the first sitcom that I supsect was
created that way. The actors show little sign of
actually responding to one another. It seems more like
a first read-through than an actual performance –
particularly since the first read-through is the time
when the writers hear the script and realize what
portions need reworking (in this case, it seems they
are instead deciding “here’s where we increase the
volume on the laugh track yet again” –it has a huge
ratio of on-air audience
reaction to actual humor content.) This is the sitcom that
takes the “fun” out of “disfunctional family”. Reba’s
husband is leaving her, her high school junior daughter
is pregnant, and her younger kids, well, one of them
makes wisecracks like Darlene from Roseanne, the other
has a weird aura like DJ on Roseanne. But they don’t
live up to their archetypes.

(If there was any question whether the TV theme song
was truly dead, let’s note that this new sitcom
starring singing sensation Reba Macintire has one
of those modern 10 second musical stings at the
opener. Oddly enough, Raiding Dad gets a 30 second
mini-song, about as long as half hour themes get
these days.)

MAYBE IT’S ME attempts to be stylish, and at least
partially succeeds. A 15 year old girl deals with the
thing that most 15 year old girls spend most of their
days dealing with: embarassment. For the most part,
it’s family-derived shame, as her wacky parents,
siblings (including a pair of twins — you can’t have
a wasky family without young twins, in this case a pair
that looks a lot like a set of young Tina Yotherses),
and grandparents. There’s some good cast in here,
notably Fred Willard and Julia Sweeney as the parents.
Designed to be part of a familyp-friendly Friday
night, this will tend to be more obviously moralistic
than, say, Malcolm In The Middle, but it is funny along
the way. The show is narrated by its protagonist, a
trick used in many lackluster sitcoms but it works well
here. The storyline is accompanied by frequent little
visual pop-ups, adding thought balloons or information
about characters and their situations… the use of
pop-ups could be a bit smoother, but it still basically
works. I suspect that this family sitcom would be
watchable by teenage girls and their parents; as a
person who is neither, I consider it watchable, but
not a must-see.

The pilot of RAISING DAD also dealt a lot with teenage
female embarassment, although the protagonist is the
embarasser rather than the embarassee. Bob Saget plays
a recent widower who teaches in the same school that
his eldest daughter attends. It was devoid of humor,
and the would-be touching parts are devoid of touchingness.

Minor new season TV note: The theme songlet to the
two-good-episodes-out-of-two sitcom SCRUBS has the
key phrase “I’m no Superman”. It airs on Tuesdays
at 9:30 on NBC. I guess they’re just trying to make
it clear that you’re not tuning into the second half
of the new young-Superman show SMALLVILLE, which will
be airing at the same time on the WB.

Published in: on October 6, 2001 at 6:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

To Boldly Go…

Hey, I just came up with a good tagline for the series Enterprise:

“To Boldly Go Where Several Friendly Species Have Gone Before And
Can Offer Us Tips On Where To Dine.”

Published in: on October 4, 2001 at 6:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

According to Jim, Special Unit 2

When I switched the channel to catch tonight’s premiere of
ACCORDING TO JIM, the new Jim Belushi sitcom, I caught the
tail end of My Wife And Kids. Damon Wayans was bribing his
young daughter a dollar to not tell her mother about what he
was doing.

A little less than half an hour later, we learned that
Belushi’s character had bribed his young daughter one
dollar not to tell her mother (played by the lovely and
talented Courtney Thorne Smith) about the wrong thing he had done.

This is a cliched sitcom about a cliched sitcom dad.
And given its lack of actual humorous content, there is
no reason to watch this.

SPECIAL UNIT 2 is not actually a new series. Apparently,
this UPN show is in its second season, but its entire
existence had gone undetected by me until now. The unit
of the title is apparently some sort of secret Chicago
police division to deal with supernatural situations
(although
I could not pick up if there was an actual definition
of their realm of specialty), keeping the supernatural
aspects of what’s going on away from the eyes of the
general public. It focus on one pair of
cops, good-looking twentysomethings of both sexes (hey,
it’s UPN) and some sort of short, presumably supernatural
bad boy who reluctantly assists them.
If this sounds to you like a Men In Black ripoff, give
yourself a cigar Of course, there’s a big budget
difference between a Will Smith movie and a UPN series,
and there’s a lack of smoothness and subtlety. I reckon
this falls under the category of “stupid fun for 17
year old boys”, which many nights seems to be UPN’s
motto.

Ever notice that some nights, TV seems to have a theme?
Some uncommon little item will just happen to show up
on 2 or 3 shows in a row. Well, the dollar bribery is
certainly the big theme of the night, but the secondary
theme was apparently Juggs Magazine, the all-American
salute to mammaries which just happen to be mentioned
in both of the shows I reviewed today.

Published in: on October 3, 2001 at 10:09 pm  Comments Off  

Bob Patterson, Scrubs

BOB PATTERSON carries the signs of being created by committee, with
a ton of people throwing in small ideas, set concepts, casting
concepts that they thought would be great, and ended up with a big
ol’ mess of bits but no grace.

That isn’t to say that the series has no workable central concept.
Bob Patterson is a man beset by life, in contrast with his career
as a motivational speaker. But he’s coming back to speaking
after some career stumbling, he’s faced with writer’s block, an
ex-wife who is acting more like an ex-ex, and the pressures
of various people who want a piece of him.

There are some talented folks here, and a couple of others.
A little shaking out, and they might have something workable.
However, apparently they already tried to fix this once. Placed
up against a weakened-yet-still-watchable Frasier, I expect this
doubtlessly-expensive production to have a short life.

Following the watchable Frasier is the new SCRUBS, a one-camera
sitcom about a new resident. In some ways, this is the flip side
of Bob Patterson; it’s not the problems of a person whose life
is falling apart, but those of someone who is trying to build a
life that he’s not prepared for. Done with a quick rhythm that
fits the intensity of its setting, filled with humor that comes
from exagerations of human emotions rather than ignoring them,
Scrubs is off to a strong start. This show won’t be for everyone;
for a sitcom, it has an incredibly high “squirm” factor, so
those who can’t sit through ER without flinching will have
some trouble here as well. But it is a strong entry, and
following Frasier, I expect it to be discovered by a fair
number of folks. (Although there are probably still many who
will switch over to Spin City, for some reason. Not that that
show was ever as good as ought have been, but with the the
grating Charlie Sheen character and the inexplicable casting
of Heather Locklear in a sitcom, the talented supporting cast
aren’t used enough to make this at all worthwhile. And what
is it with this show and female characters? There are at
least five female former “regulars” who have disappeared,
any one of whom showed more comedic chops in a single episode
than Heather will show in an entire season. Oy!)

Published in: on October 3, 2001 at 6:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

Law & Order: CI, UC: Undercover, Alias

I’d guess I’d better explain my relationship with the Law & Order
shows. I am not one of those who believes that media violence
leads to more real violence. However, I have real concern about
the effect that media violence has on people’s comfort in this
world. During years when the general level of violence in America has
been decreasing, polls have regularly shown that people feel the
level of violence is increasing. Why? Well, I can’t help but suspect
that TV news is a key culprit. As the level of violence has
decreased, news stories have increased. Now, when an armed robber
shoots a convenience store clerk in Australia, we’ll see the
security camera footage on the loval news. Coverage of violence
lacks context, leaving us feeling as if we are in a violent
society, leading to a life of fear (and leading to some awful
legal policy situations, as the laws address the perceived
situations rather than the real one.)

Law & Order plays into this. The show has the feel of realism.
It is frequently (although not always) underplayed, generally
well-acted, and all in all makes its content seem quite real.
And yet, they present a rather large rate of murder among the
general non-drug-dealing, non-gang-member populace. And the
realistic feel often covers up dubious emotional reality, or
finds some unlikely scapegoat for crime (and yes, they’ve
tarred comics that way.) The feel of the shows make them
convincing, and the message they send encourages fear and
scapegoating.

L&O:CI is more of the same, only moreso. It’s villain-centric.
The lead male cop has such a keen grasp of human nature that
he seems to be ready to predict everything because his views
of humankind are absolute. The first episode pushed my unhappy
buttons on a couple key fronts: in one scene, the cop uses
mislogic about the spread of AIDS to mislead someone, and I’m
concerned he may have mislead some members of the audience,
in a way that misemphasizes the effect of bisexuality. And yes,
there was bisexuality among the baddies here… which I wouldn’t
mind so much if I could point to some positive bi depictions
on series TV. Great strides have been made in depiction of
homosexuality, but those whose loves are not so limited still
get the short end of the stick. I’ve got too many friends in
that category not to notice. (And before anyone tries to point
to Willow on Buffy — Willow has not failed to take sides, she
has merely switched them. There was a chance last year to
establish her a bi, but they went the other way.)

So I don’t foresee watching this series. It joins the other
L&O series on my “no thank you” list. Were it more realistic,
or less realistic-seeming, then I’d be more comfortable with
it. (But those of you who like L&O, do not dispair; it’s
available almost 24 hours a day it seems, if you have cable,
and at the current rate we will see a network primetime
lineup of nothing but L&O within our lifetime!)

Seeming realistic is not a problem that faces UC: UNDERCOVER
(one of the many titles that has driven my wife to point out
that all the good titles must have been long since taken.)
The key badguys are a batch of super-bank robbers who
have been hitting about a bank a week for three years. Yeah, right… the
modern bank robber is the most notoriously *stupid* type
of criminal. And the job of capturing these robbers have
fallen to a special undercover unit of bad-asses and problem
children of various sorts, who for some unknown reason have
been given a large degree of autonomy. It’s not quite clear
why they need folks to go undercover with this group of
robbers, as they clearly frequently know where these folks
are and how to contact them.

So the main guy they’re putting on the inside is being
given the description of his cover. “Your father was a
sperm donor,” he is told, “and your mother gave you up
for adoption.” My wife and I just looked at each other.
Yeah, sure, many women who go to the trouble of buying
donor sperm end up giving up their kids for adoption,
rrrrrriggght. (By a day later, I realized that the writers
probably meant “sperm donor” sarcastically for a man who
just wasn’t around…but that’s sure not how the line was
read!)

Big guns, and Melodrama Maximized Every Single Moment!
And hey, it’s written by the guy who wrote Armageddon,
so it must be good, right? I won’t be back for more of
this one…. and frankly, I doubt there’ll be much more
of it to come back to.

ALIAS launched in an interesting manner. The first episode
was more than an hour long, and ran without commercial
interruption. (It’ll probably rerun on the network as an
hour and a half. Don’t know how they’ll handle it if this
series ever reaches syndication.) This show isn’t realistic
either; it does, however, fit into the genre of ornate
covert action tales, with supersecret organizations,
double agents, and supertoys. This is stylish (if not
totally original in its style; there were scenes with
a bottle-red-haired lead actress running to a certain
musical background that evoked Run, Lola, Run rather
strongly.) Smoothly done, but without the over-the-top
thrills of a James Bond picture or the emotional involvement
of a good spy novel. It’s not a bad thing to watch, but
it didn’t leave me caring what happened next. I wouldn’t
be that suprised to see this series do well, but I don’t
think I’ll be along or the ride.

Published in: on October 2, 2001 at 6:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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