November 3rd, 2009
“Where were you this morning?”
From an overall scheduling standpoint, V’s early November debut is problematic. It forces the show into airing only four short episodes this calendar year, and it won’t return until March with the remainder of its first season. However, in terms of its arrival, it comes perhaps at the perfect time in terms of impressive this particular critic. With disillusionment with FlashForward turning into outright disinterest, there’s room for another serialized piece of mystery/science fiction programming in my life.
And while there are some issues with V’s pilot, mostly stemming from issues symptomatic of pilots more than this particular show, it manages to do what FlashForward did not. By not only providing an adrenaline-filled opening that catches the eye with sharp rhetoric and explosive imagery but then following it up by demonstrating that it has long-term social and personal consequences (that the show intends to deal with), the show maintains an expansive scenario without reducing it to a single perspective. While the arrival of the Visitors affects some individuals more than others, that interpersonal conflict is superseded by a broader cultural impact that is as much a part of the show’s identity as is any one individual’s story.
What results is a pilot that manages to be both action-packed and ideologically-driven, and the building blocks of a show which could logically remain both of these things over its run so long as behind the scenes production issues don’t get in the way.
My experience with the Stargate franchise is somewhat limited: I’m fairly certain I’ve seen the movie, likely stumbled upon SG-1 at some point, and saw quite a few random episodes of Atlantis while home during holidays. It is a series that, for me, has always failed to keep my interest largely because of the repetitiveness of its procedural construct, especially with Atlantis. While there were some interesting ideas on that show, and even some interesting performances, I found that the universe being constructed wasn’t interesting enough for me to come back week after week for very similar storylines that would either end quickly or, at the most, develop into a 2 or 3 episode arc.
However, like any show of this nature, by the end of its run Stargate Atlantis had built up a large following based on a cast of characters that audiences related with, characters which would prove capable of sustaining repetitive storylines. It is for this reason that the decision to end Atlantis somewhat prematurely, before fans had felt its time was up, seemed particularly strange: yes, Stargate Universe (which debuts tomorrow night at 9pm on Space in Canada and SyFy in the U.S.) offers many of the same procedural elements, albeit with a twist, but because this cast of characters is completely different it means that audience goodwill starts all over again.
The biggest problem with tonight’s two-hour pilot for Stargate Universe is that I felt absolutely no emotional connection to these characters, or this story, and perhaps most importantly nothing the episode accomplishes makes me feel as if this is going to change in the immediate future. I won’t suggest that over time this group of characters couldn’t be engaging, but in the pilot their actions feel contrived and lifeless with a thin back story and an overbearing sense of helplessness which should bring them closer together but actually just operates as a false tension.
Free from the pressure of establishing a whole host of characters and the show’s premise, it is possible that these kinds of issues will be ironed out. However, even then, there is something about this Universe that feels muddled in a way which seems inherent to creative decisions that have the franchise starting over with a direction both too clear and too unclear.
“No More Good Days”
September 24th, 2009
ABC is pretty much cursed.
See, anytime they create a new show that emphasizes mystery, or features science fiction elements, or has a large ensemble cast, or evokes more questions than it does answers, it’s going to be compared to Lost. And, for almost all of those shows (The Nine, Invasion, etc.) they truly are shows that come in the wake of ABC’s monster hit, shows that attempt to use the sort of serialized storytelling at Lost’s core in order to bring in more audiences.
However, they are almost always what one would consider a failure, if only because Lost works for reasons which go far beyond its buzzwords or its structure. What makes it work is a focus on character over plot (something that sustains the show when the plot takes a back seat), and a sense of execution that comes from having strong people behind the wheel and (perhaps more importantly) a cast and crew who are willing to learn lessons as they go along.
So, if ABC wants us to proclaim FlashForward the next Lost, they’re going to have to do a lot more than an action-packed clip montage at episode’s end and a pilot with an emphasis on secrets, mysteries and a large ensemble cast. This isn’t to say that I don’t find FlashForward fascinating, or that its pilot was unenjoyable. However, trapped in the hype about being the new Lost, the show fails to feel as if it has a clear grasp on what kind of show it wants to be beyond “a show like Lost,” a definition that might get its foot in the door but needs to be followed through on.
And the only people who know about that are those who blacked out for two minutes and seventeen seconds and saw a future where the show is either a huge success or a crippling disappointment. And, you know, the show’s producers. In the meantime, we just have to take their word for it with “No More Good Days,” a pilot which sells a premise but doesn’t necessarily prove it’s capable of delivering on its promise.
September 23rd, 2009
Pilot season is really kind of an awkward time, when you think about it. If you’re going to be a “breakthrough” show (like Modern Family, which aired before Cougar Town), you need to move outside the bounds of the traditional pilot to surprise and excite. However, part of the nature of a pilot is tempering expectation, creating a template for your series which won’t always be smooth and which in some instances might not even be that compelling. It’s an episode where you open the episode with a conceptual scene that establishes your premise set to a hip indie music selection, and the result can often be a sense that this is “just another pilot.”
But there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Yes, Modern Family deserves its accolades, but Cougar Town is a solid if unspectacular pilot for a show that has amassed a pretty impressive supporting cast, a fantastic lead actress, and sets up a premise which could on the surface result in diminishing returns and yet could just as easily turn into a really engaging premise for a sitcom. It is certainly not subtle, but with Bill Lawrence behind the scenes and some elements of interest I’m definitely willing to stick around Cougar Town for a while.
September 23rd, 2009
There has been a pretty impressive critical consensus that Modern Family is pretty darn good. While Glee might be creating the most enthusiastic response amongst fans, and Community appeals to particular senses of humour more, Modern Family has been the one pilot that nearly everyone has considered well-made, well-cast, and just all around kind of great. It’s also one pilot that I wasn’t able to see in advance, which meant that I went in with that always awkward sense that I was almost required to love the show. Expectations were higher than perhaps any other show, and the result could easily have been a sense that this had all been overhyped, and that it was all for naught.
But, as hard as the critics have tried to potentially ruin this experience, and the clips I saw back when the show was first announced ruined particular moments, and ABC decided to ruin the pilot’s “surprise,” none of it did anything to ruin the enjoyment of an enormously charming pilot. With a fantastic cast and a clever premise, the show only stops delivering laughs to provide heartwarming moments which are then turned upside down all over again.
The show isn’t perfect, by any means, but it’s a pilot which so hilariously defines its characters without turning them into one-dimensional stereotypes that it is certainly something to get excited about.
September 22nd, 2009
Considering that I’m almost a day late, and so many other critics have weighed in on the show and had largely positive opinions, I hadn’t really intended on sitting down to talk about The Good Wife, which I’ve always considered to be the one CBS pilot from this year that sounded legitimately interesting. A new NCIS (the original doing nothing for me, if nothing against me) isn’t going to get me excited, Three Rivers’ premise has enormously limited potential, and Accidentally on Purpose was strained from the start. But there was something both topical and intriguing about a show which took an aspect of a shockingly prevalent political phenomenon (the disgraced politician resigning as a result of a sex scandal) and asked itself a question: what happens to the wife?
And while more recent events would answer with “Go on a ridiculous summer reality show on your husband’s behalf,” The Good Wife fast forwards six months into the future to a position where Alicia (Julianna Margulies) is re-entering the work force as an underddog whose fellow juniour associates at her law firm were pre-teens when she last practiced. What results is logically two separate shows, one where Alicia struggles to raise her kids and live her life in the wake of her husband’s betrayal, and the other as she has to overcome years of rust to regain her composure as a lawyer.
But why the show is so effective is that rather than attempting to demonstrate how challenging it is to balance these two parts of her life, turning her into a harried disappointment to her children or a fundamental less of an attorney, the pilot is more interested in demonstrating that in some ways she’s meant for this. In some ways, what she has gone through in her personal life has made her a far more effective litigator, and has given her a new perspective on her family which keeps her priorities firmly in check. Alicia is a woman who has taken control of her own life, and by marrying her two worlds as largely harmonious as opposed to a constant conflict, it allows us to relate to Alicia on multiple levels – combine with a pretty great cast and an intriguing opening case, and you’ve got yourself a legal procedural I’ll stick with for a while.
September 17th, 2009
While I understand the logic behind putting the Community behind The Office for its first month or so, I will say this: for now, sound logic or no, it’s not doing the show any favours.
Yes, the show has a strong lead-in and a higher success rate in terms of ratings, which are financially speaking the lifeblood of a series. However, Community’s “Pilot,” which is about as cookie cutter as it comes in terms of the way it sets up the show (you can almost see the show yelling “Setting!” and “Character” with its collection of scenarios), cannot help but seem contrived and simplistic when placed against The Office, which now in its sixth season is totally confident about who its characters are and has no such awkward transitions. I’m not suggesting that it’s a fair comparison, but it’s one that you can’t help but make: after writing reviews of two season premieres for shows that have put their setup days behind them, Community is jarringly disassembled.
I think that the show’s pilot, ultimately, does assemble into a solid foundation for a series, and through a strong sense of humour and some great casting has me extremely interested to keep watching. However, as a pilot, there is something about it that lacks that element of surprise, and which is vague on specifics in a way which makes one worry if it’s all going to fall off the rails with time – critics who’ve seen second episode say it doesn’t, which is great news, but I still think that there’s some warning signs around.
“Pilot” and “Resonance”
July 7th & July 14th, 2009
I fell asleep watching the Warehouse 13 pilot.
It’s a true story. I was there, trying to get through it, but I was exhausted from being up early and the pilot wasn’t really engaging me on any level. It wasn’t that it was bad, or that it actually put me to sleep (I consciously paused it before conking out moments later), but the fact remains that there was something about Warehouse 13 that wasn’t really connecting with me.
However, upon finishing the Pilot last night, and digging into “Resonance” this afternoon, I can say quite emphatically that the show is more than capable of keeping me awake. No, it’s not a replacement for Battlestar Galactica by any means, but it doesn’t try to be. What it represents is Reaper with less comedy, Fringe without the mythology, and every crime procedural you’ve ever seen with a sense of whimsy that’s often sorely lacking on those shows. It has no grandiose ideas about its position in the television world: what it delivers is what it sets out to achieve, a light-hearted but nonetheless resonant piece of dramedic television.
And in the middle of summer, when television often feels like a wasteland, a weekly trip into the depths of Warehouse 13 is something I’m already looking forward to, if not particularly obsessing over.
June 28th, 2009
“Everything’s falling apart.”
Hung is not a show about an abnormally large specimen of the male anatomy.
Well, okay, technically it is, but that’s really not what the show is trying to tell us. While the new HBO “comedy” follows the exploits of high school basketball coach-turned male escort Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane), who happens to be particularly well endowed, its real focus lies less in what he’s doing than why he’s doing it, a common thread in shows that followed down on their luck characters taking drastic career moves (Breaking Bad, Weeds, etc.). What they choose to do may be a source of comedy for the series, but the legitimately intriguing elements come more from the scenario that drives him to that point.
And while this one may seem crude at first glance, it’s actually quite apt considering the show’s message. Set against the devolving urban landscape of Detroit, the show situates itself as a commentary on the death of the American dream (a note that Alan Sepinwall makes in his review of the show), and how one man chooses to sell a particular sexual fantasy as a replacement of sorts for the fantasy life he lost through a series of bad luck scenarios that mirrors the crises facing many modern Americans. For those who haven’t yet watched the show, this probably seems like a highly verbose justification for enjoying a show about a man with a big dick, but let me assure you: while the title may seem to refer to that part of the show at first, it is the way that Ray has been hung out to dry by life that it’s actually interested in.
For this reason, there’s more than enough substance to Hung for me to stick around – it’s not particularly funny for a comedy, sure, but what it lacks in laughs it makes up for with scale.
June 26th, 2009
After watching the two-hour event that is the Virtuality pilot, I think I can understand why FOX was resistent to picking the show up to series.
It isn’t that FOX is allergic to science fiction: it goes into next season with the genre’s two biggest television properties, Fringe and Dollhouse, in its lineup. Rather, there’s a particular way that it likes its science fiction, a preference that both Dollhouse and Fringe fit into comfortable. Both shows, although expanding heavily on their serialized elements and genre transmorgifications later in their freshman seasons, started out as genrified takes on the procedural mystery model, combining a high concept with what is arguably a more accesible and thus lower form of weekly episodic television. For FOX executives worried about selling the show to advertisers and viewers alike, it was the ace up their sleeve, the caveat that allowed them to both give the appearance of openness to genre programming and satisfy their desire to eat away at CBS’ dominance in the field.
The reason Virtuality wasn’t ordered to series is because it is one giant, enormous middle finger to such ludicrous practices of watering down science fiction upon its arrival so as to pretend as if the people who don’t like science fiction are going to stick around once things get weird. What makes good science fiction is the balls out willingness to question reality, and to break away from any and all conventions, all qualities that both Fringe and Dollhouse are capable of and yet never got to reach until FOX was satisfied that the show was really just CSI with insane science or The Unit with personality implants. Virtuality, however, wastes no time in crafting a world where nothing where we question everything, and is thus a world that any science fiction fan in their right mind wants to explore further.
All but dead in the water despite the strange lead-up to this airing, Virtuality is a fascinating pilot, a god awful standalone television movie considering how it ends, and, should it truly find itself on the wrong end of FOX’s idiocy, another sign that high science fiction may be a thing of the past on network television.
But, for now, excuse me if I spend a bit of time talking about how awesome it was.