Tag Archives: J.J. Abrams

Review: NBC’s Undercovers Can’t Hide from J.J. Abrams’ Reputation

“Pilot”

September 22nd, 2010

In the future, I think J.J. Abrams should operate under a pseudonym (or go undercover, if you prefer the pun).

If it were not for his presence, I think I’d be able to write a review saying that Undercovers (debuting tonight at 8/7c on NBC) is a show with a decent premise, a stylish pilot, and a strong cast; instead, all I want to do is talk about how none of what makes – or perhaps made – Abrams a distinctive voice in television seems to be present. The pilot has no sense of surprise and little sense of mystery, and yet because we associate these things with Abrams it feels like a disappointment even when, objectively speaking, this is an average pilot for an average premise, and Abrams was only a co-creator and co-writer (with Josh Reims).

And yet, we desire – and perhaps even demand – something beyond average, which is why Undercovers fails to resonate beyond its attractiveness.

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Fringe – “Peter”

“Peter”

April 1st, 2010

In its promotions for the show, FOX sells Fringe based on the tagline “New Cases. Endless Possibilities.” But what’s interesting, and ultimately enormously compelling, about “Peter” is that the possibilities aren’t endless at all: we know what happened to Peter at the age of 7, and we know the key parties involved, so the show isn’t interested in endless possibilities so much as it is interested in interpreting what we already know.

There’s a challenge in this type of episode, especially for a show that has created such a strong dichotomy between its standalone episodes and its mythology-driven stories; fans may go in expecting answers to big questions, and while “Peter” offers a couple of interesting tidbits and some neat connections it is first and foremost a story about the limits of humanity as opposed to the potential of technology. It is a starkly human story, largely taking for granted its science fiction premise in favour of a fantastic depiction of a man struggling against the inevitable and risking everything to save a life that wasn’t his to save, to right a wrong that was not his fault.

In the process he changed the course of time and space, and this show became both possible and extremely compelling, but for this hour none of that mattered compared to the love shared between parents and their children. “Peter” is a stellar negotiation of Walter Bishop and his dances with the dark side of morality, and in the hands of John Noble and with some nice stylistic flourishes, it is certainly one of the show’s strongest hours, if one that they’ll never be able to duplicate again.

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Moving into a Higher Genre Bracket: Consistency and Balance in FOX’s Fringe

Moving into a Higher Genre Bracket

April 1st, 2010

There are some shows that I can honestly say I’ve given up on: I stopped watching shows like Desperate Housewives because it was clearly not going in an interesting direction, and it had long gone past the point where the strength of the performances could carry my attention. However, there are other shows that I stop watching where there isn’t that moment of decision, where I don’t consciously make some sort of decree about it. I didn’t give up on The Mentalist or Grey’s Anatomy so much as I gave up on finding the time to watch them, which is a completely different situation and one that is particularly common on Thursday nights.

And so when I stopped watching Fringe, it wasn’t some sort of judgment on the show’s standalone episodes, or any sort of disappointment with its serialized development. Rather, Thursdays are busy, and the NBC comedy block having become four-strong this year (at least in theory) has made Thursdays busier than ever. Sure, it says something that Fringe was the first show I dropped, but I don’t want to make that out to be some sort of judgment when it wasn’t one.

I’ve spend the past few days catching up on Fringe’s second season, which I dropped after the second episode, and it’s been quite an illuminating experience. When you step away from a show like Fringe for so long, and end up watching it in this sort of condensed fashion, you see a lot of things that you might not have seen before: your perception, in other words, becomes more important (or at least more noteworthy) than reality, fitting considering the role that played in the episodes I had a chance to watch this week.

While some may argue that Fringe is “inconsistent,” I would argue that it is our perception which varies as opposed to the show itself: depending on where we place our expectations, Fringe is either a compelling procedural with a (relatively) complex serialized mythology or a blasé procedural with intermittent signs of serialized intrigue. I don’t think either of these perspectives are wrong, or unfair to the show, but I would argue that it has been pretty consistent in its ambitions in its second season.

And while I don’t necessarily perceive the show as one of television’s finest, I had a lot of “fun” catching up on the show…in fact, I had more fun than I had expected.

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Television, the Aughts & I – Part One – “Beginnings”

“Beginnings”

December 13th, 2009

[This is Part One in a six-part series chronicling the television shows which most influenced my relationship with television over the past decade – for more information and an index of all currently posted items, click here.]

Memory is inherently selective, and yet we have almost no control over the selection process. We’d love to be able to, say, remember incredibly important facts or theories for the sake of writing exams as opposed to having a steel trap when it comes to song lyrics, and random details about family trips are useless if you can’t remember the names of your second cousins, but it just isn’t possible. We want to be able to control memory, to think we can choose what we remember, but in reality it’s entirely out of our hands.

So I have to wonder what it means that before 2001, I don’t remember watching television.

This is not to suggest I was entirely ambivalent towards the medium, as I weekly sat down to watch The Simpsons and surely watched an occasional episode of the big shows of the 90s (or whatever was on TBS in syndication when I got home from school each day). However, there was no sense that The Simpsons were more than an anomaly, and more importantly there was no show I followed religiously. My television tastes were devoid of plot and substance, a fact which didn’t bother me at the time but now makes me wonder what I was missing. Of course, I was 14 when this decade began, so missing out on some shows that started when I was a pre-teen isn’t exactly the world’s greatest crime. However, that this medium, which has become so important in my life, was at one point unmemorable seems like some sort of cosmic mistake. But in the end memory’s selection process captures those things which felt like they had an important influence on some part of your life, and for me that simply did not happen with television…before 2001.

However, it did happen afterwards, signalling a shift in both how my memory operates and how I watch and write about television. I want to focus on the first three shows of the decade that I have distinct memories of watching, and in particular on how well those initial memories have survived the following years (which were not, in fact, entirely kind to these particular series). And while I may have turned on these series to varying degrees as they became inconsistent or went in unsatisfying directions, no amount of criticism can wipe away the memories of watching them for the first time – memories that might not exist before 2001, but most certainly exist for the years which follow.

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Fringe – “Night of Desirable Objects”

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“Night of Desirable Objects”

September 24th, 2009

Thursday night television is, well, a night of desirable objects. With the return of Grey’s Anatomy and CSI, along with FlashForward, FOX’s decision to move Fringe into this competitive timeslot proved temporarily terrifying for J.J. Abrams and company as the show plummeted 23% in overnight ratings. Now, Live+7 numbers will ultimately tell the story of how many people DVR’d the show in order to catch the more buzzworthy Grey’s opener, but it’s like a big old red flag that FOX knew was coming, but that it hoped could be avoided. Bones has nicely situated itself in the once Survivor-dominated 8pm timeslot, and FlashForward dominated the timeslot with its premiere and CSI debuted to its own lowest premiere numbers since likely the first or second season.

What’s unfortunate for Fringe is that “Night of Desirable Objects” isn’t particularly desirable, effectively stopping the long-term storylines dead in favour of presenting a pretty simple (and not overly complex) frightfest along with a slow burn reveal regarding Olivia Dunham. For those who want the show to be a full-fledged television serial, it’s the kind of pace changer that turns them off entirely; meanwhile, for those who are mostly tuning in to see Walter have too much fun investigating dead people and to get some cheap thrills with some characters you enjoy, it was a harmless hour of entertainment that did some good work making Olivia more interesting and perhaps provide some laughs or scares along the way.

As someone who kind of sits in between, it was a not entirely unwelcome change of pace, although one that’s likely to prove an ineffective lure for new viewers.

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Season Premiere: Fringe – “A New Day in the Old Town”

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“A New Day in the Old Town”

September 17th, 2009

From the very beginning, I’ve said that Fringe is a cross between Alias and The X-Files, two shows that were pretty similar to begin with. While The X-Files leaned more towards the blatantly supernatural, both shows dealt with elements of prophecy which linked investigators with the events transpiring, and each dealt with the impact of bureaucracy on such investigations. So when J.J. Abrams created Fringe, in some ways it was an example of a creator taking an element of one of his earlier shows and simply expanding it into a new arena. There is not a huge leap between Rambaldi and the Pattern, and at various point in Fringe’s first season you could see Abrams (along with Orci, Kurtzman, etc.) tweaking the formula in an effort to avoid what happened to Alias, where serialized storytelling overran any chance of the show maintaining a procedural structure.

But at the end of the first season, Fringe truly came into its own. Once the show started more carefully considering the impact of the pattern and really indulging in its serialized side of things, the show picked up a new head of steam. Early complaints about Anna Torv’s performance mostly melted away, and the show should some skill in how it handled the conclusion of Mark Valley’s time on the show and eventually how it introduced the fairly huge development of an alternate universe. By linking said alternate universe both to Peter’s sense of identity and to Walter’s damaged mental state, and by placing the mystery of William Bell directly within it, it became part of the fabric of the show as opposed to tearing it all apart. When we panned out and discovered the Twin Towers still standing in said universe, it was a shocking moment that showed a series very much in control of its own destiny, and not just a collection of leftover ideas from Alias or The X-Files.

And to be honest, I think “A New Day in the Old Town” is probably a far better episode than I’m about to give it credit for, as its ‘big twist’ fundamentally took me out of the episode and right back into feeling as if this is Alias: Part Two for Abrams, in some respects. While parts of the episode really felt like the show that I came to really enjoy at the end of last season, there were other parts which were designed to capture new viewers and to trick unsuspecting viewers into feeling sad, or concerned, or anything else. It’s a trap that is often considered necessary for procedurals (which Fringe technically is), but by delaying the resolution to last season’s cliffhanger and providing a simulation of conflict it felt as if the episode was all about that big twist at the end…and when that was Abrams blatantly ripping himself off, I guess I’m just not as excited about this episode as I expected myself to be back in May.

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Season Finale: Fringe – “There’s More Than One of Everything”

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“There’s More Than One of Everything”

May 12th, 2009

I wrote a piece a while back about the ways in which Fringe sits between the procedural and the serial, with episodes that feel heavily formulaic and others that are heavily serialized and almost feel like a different show. “There’s More Than One of Everything,” as a finale, sits as the latter, an engaging with huge ideas, long-gestating character reveals, and the central “reality” that the show has been dealing with.

But what makes this episode work is that it didn’t come after a string of your run of the mill procedural episodes: by spending more or less the entirety of the post-hiatus period, which I haven’t been blogging about as I’ve been forced to play catchup more than once, balancing these two elements more effectively than in the first part of the season, the show has found its footing and was capable of delivering this finale without feeling as if this was an out of the blue burst of serialized interest to a show that too often falls on its procedural elements.

So when the scene eventually arrives when all of the individual cases suddenly tie together to help Olivia solve the true motivations of the infamous Mr. Jones, it doesn’t feel like the hackneyed scene it could have. The show doesn’t quite feel as natural as, say, Lost within this particular environment of the big event episode, but the show quite adequately and quite subtlely put itself into position for this finale over the past few weeks, and it was much more effective as a result.

As for whether it’s right up there with Abrams’ other shows in terms of finales, well, that’s a different story…but not an unpleasant one for the creator.

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