Monday, June 30, 2008

Jeff Goldblum: Crime-Stopper

A year or so back, Liev Schrieber had a four-episode guest role on "CSI," playing a character who was quite alien to the franchise, in that he had a personality. His character seemed to have a life that existed outside of the procedural he found himself in. It was really refreshing and interesting. So of course he had to die, so William Peterson could come back on and get things back to normal.

"Back to normal" is something most procedurals don't have to deal with, because they rarely ever leave "normal." Which is why I tend to hate the big procedural families, "CSI" and "Law and Order."

Pop on NBC, CBS, TNT, USA, or Spike at any time of the day, and you've got a better-than-average chance of catching an episode of some permutation of these two franchises. But - and here's why I hate them - I defy you to tell me what season it's in. Because every season is pretty much like the one that came before it. There might be some minor changes - Warick might be gambling again, or Sam Waterston's looking older - but those changes rarely affect the plot.

Hell, Jerry Orbach DIES, and "Law and Order" just replaces him with Dennis Farina, and thus, the grizzled-detective balance is restored.

(Shows like "House" and "Bones," by virtue of their being "mystery of the week" stories, could also be dubbed "procedurals," but here's the difference: if you removed the A-plot - Who is sick/who's been murdered - you'd still have character-based stories going on.)

"L&O: CI" is the red-headed stepchild of the franchise, relegated to the USA sister cable channel where it could get better ratings with a cheaper production cost. It's also the only "Law and Order" where the lead character has some liveliness.

This is because it's primarily Vincent D'Onofrio as the lead, chewing scenery left and right because, well...he's Vincent D'Onofrio, so he gets to. But because he is The Vincent D'Onofrio, apparently doing a whole season of scenery-chewing takes a lot out of him, and so he needs a little help now and again.

Last year, Jeff Goldblum starred as an L.A. detective in a short-lived series called "Raines," where he talked to imaginary crime scene victims to solve their cases. Those were six great episodes (and will likely be a future "Nobody Watched It But Me" entry). Because the show was essentially "Jeff Golblum: Detective." Probably more people would have watched if it was called that.

Oh, how groovy it would be if Detective Raines transferred to New York. I can't imagine I'd be that lucky, but then again, it's rare that Golblum plays anything other than his own quirky, rambling self. So if I can watch a Dick Wolf-sanctioned "Jeff Goldblum Solves Crimes" show, I might actually be willing to check this out.

I don't give a shit about the crimes. TV's been recycling the same "ripped from the headlines" tales of horror for decades now. I care about who's insane enough to want to solve them.

I believe Jeff Golblum is just crazy enough for the job.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Flip This Global Stronghold!

Anyone who watches “The Office,” and thinks Michael Scott has become too much of a cartoon to be believable on what is supposed to be a reality/documentary series…head on over to TLC. Pop on a little show called “Property Ladder.”

- Watch! as people with absolutely no real estate experience listen to the advice of a woman who, in addition to having a decade of experience in the field, is the host of the show – advice intended to save them time, money and trouble – and respond, “Nnnaaah, I like my idea better.”
- Marvel! as these people listen to plumbers who are clearly screwing with them, and reluctantly agree that putting a toilet directly in front of a low window in the center of the room is probably okay.
- Wince! as a young couple decides to forego a housing inspection prior to buying the property, and then immediately discovers that, based on the pervasive wood rot, the house seems to be holding itself up on pure optimism more than anything else.
- Gawk! as three friends, who together refer to themselves as “Team Tripod” (also the name of their pub-quiz team, I assume), systematically destroy a waterlogged backyard because of their firm, yet completely unfounded, belief that adding a master bedroom is the key to selling the house for far more than any reasonable human being would pay.
- Grin! – while curling your fingers into Punchin’ Fists! – as one of them says, without a trace of irony, “Making a million dollars is harder than I thought.”

Now go and watch “The Office” again. And thank god they don’t write Michael Scott as blindingly, offensively stupid as these people.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

You Stop It Right Now, Billie Piper!

And now, I present my first impression of Showtime's British import, "Secret Diary of a Call Girl":

"What the...Akk! No! Stop doing that, Billie Piper! You stop doing that right now!"

Okay, that was pretty much the entirety of my reaction to this show. I was actually more uncomfortable watching Billie Piper simulate oral sex (and seriously, foley guys, easy does it on the sucking noises, please) than I was when David Duchovny was faux-banging his way through Los Angeles on "Californication" last year.

The series pilot tells you everything you need to know about its protagonist - actually, she tells you most of it through fourth-wall-breaking narration, and you can infer when she's being Unreliable Narrator the rest of the time - but even at 21 minutes, it still feels pretty slim. Hannah/Belle is a call-girl because she "loves sex and money, and is fundamentally lazy." And then the episode more or less affirms this, but doesn't give you much reason to care.

This may be the Curse of a Previous Role in effect. Billie Piper is so ingrained in my memory as The Doctor's companion Rose on "Doctor Who" that the image of her fellating a mutton-chopped old man is just feels very, very wrong. I'm all for an actor trying to shake an iconic role, and I do fully believe that Billie Piper is capable of other parts, but...jeez. This was her first choice?

Whether its the thin premise or the tawdry attempts to (Warning: Writerly Phrase Approaching!) "deflower Rose," there's virtually no reason here to watch another episode.

(And we'll end here with quick note for David Tennant: If I see you thrusting your naked ass in the direction of ANYTHING in your first post-"Doctor Who" role, we're going to have some problems.)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Extended Play: "Lost, Season 1"

Recently a friend of mine asked, “So what’s the deal with ‘Lost’?” Two hours later, we reached a comfortable end point.

By this, I do not mean I’d managed to explain the show in total. I mean we’d reached a point where I felt she now had a good base of knowledge.

(Seriously – no hyperbole. Two hours. As a friend, yes. I can be quite cruel.)

As a summer project, I’m watching “Lost” from the beginning. “Lost” is what can be referred to as “novelistic” television – a show that can and should be viewed, per episode, as a chapter in a larger story.

(The best example of this format is HBO’s “The Wire.” If you were to watch one episode from, say, the middle of the second season, it would mean nothing to you as a casual viewer. But watching it as a middle-chapter of a bigger story…whoa mama.)

While very much in this mold, “Lost” also has the unfortunate compliment of being a hugely successful show on network TV, meaning it’s got to be at least somewhat accessible to a casual viewer. So I was very curious to see how, taking the long view, the series has managed to build itself as a TV-novel, without enjoying the built-in benefits of an HBO series: wholly-plotted 13-episode season arcs, contracts for recurring actors who aren’t series regulars, and built-in end-points.

So, taking it from the top, Season 1:

The first thing to strike me about Season 1 is how slowly paced it is. More to the point, what surprised me is how slowly paced it is, while somehow keeping viewers. To this day, I’m really blown away that people got behind this show as enthusiastically as they did.

My theory is that the producers snuck this big fat epic story past viewers by making them focus on two things: the characters, and the day-to-day drama of surviving on an island when there’s no hope for rescue. No Dharama Initiative, no Others, no Jacob.

It’s not that this was crap they came up with later (there are a lot of vague allusions to it all, and there’s even a lot of visual motifs that show up as early as the pilot). It’s just that the focus was so squarely on immediate concerns to the characters – shelter, water, building a raft – that The Weird Shit (polar bears, visions of dead people, etc.) was mostly background noise then.

By design, “Lost” is probably the most character-based show on television. Its early episodes were almost entirely about getting to know the people on the island.

And boy, did they have a wealth of characters to deal with. At the outset, “Lost” had a massive cast, and watching it now, four seasons in, it’s clear to see the logic of the producers, as their story progressed and they got to see which characters had legs and which didn’t (and also when they write themselves into corners – I maintain that step-siblings Boon and Shannon were dead the moment the writers finished the episode where they, y’know…did it – gah, still weird, still weird!).

There was a remarkable sense of balance in the first season, too. Each episode moved the story along a little bit (as far as we understood it, anyway), while offering showcases for multiple castaways each episode. If anything’s been lost as the Big Story’s moved on, it’s that ability to service multiple character-arcs in a given episode.

(For instance: Did you know Michael, Walt, Sun and Jin used to have major stories? I know, it’s shocking, but in that first season, their very human dramas were center-stage.
Contrast that with, say, Season 2 character Desmond. Now, everyone loves Desmond - I blame the Scottish accent - but outside of his flashbacks, find me an epsiode where he’s not primarily standing around in the background looking confused.)

But eventually, we find ourselves at the end of the first season. Both the slave-ship The Black Rock and the first Dharma station found by Locke have been introduced. The last few episodes of the first season tell the viewers: “There’s no turning back now: We’re getting into The Big Story.”

And if I were someone just watching the first season for the first time, those two big portents would be a signal to me: Hop off the ride now, or hang on till the end.

I made my choice to hang on to the end pretty much from the pilot. Problem is, a lot of people didn’t realize they wanted to hop off until midway through the second season, and man were they pissed off as a result.

We'll deal with that very shortly.

Next Week: Season 2 (Or: Maybe It Was The Dharma Station, Maybe It Was Ana-Lucia, But Boy, Were People Pissed About Season 2.)

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Daily Show Has Not Forgotten

There’s a special talent to being press secretary in the Bush Administration, because they have the unenviable task of representing the public face of All That We Hate. Ari Fleischer knew this. Because in 2001-2002, Ari Fleischer made virtually no effort to hide an attitude that mostly said, “That’s okay – I hate you too. But our approval rating means you can just suck it.” His distain actually made him pretty good at the job.

Then came Scott McClellan, who got the position just as public opinion on the administration finally reached the sane conclusions, and things, as they say, took a turn. McClellan is not a man who doesn’t have arrogant distain in his armory, nor the sharp edges of Fleischer. McClellan, all round softness, had only flop-sweat to save him as he wearily repeated the same things over and over, even though the White House press corps had recently located its collective balls – something McClellan had clearly not been warned about.

But McClellan was a visual reminder of the heavy kid who couldn’t make it through gym class, who dreaded the presidential fitness tests, who got hit with Every. Last. Dodgeball. And so while I could be satisfied in hating Ari Fleischer, I always had a bit of pity for Scott McClellan.

If “Daily Show” interviews in the last year or so are any indication, it’s that the former members of the Bush Administration will never Get It. They will never understand why we are so goddamned angry. They seem to think that leaving, writing a book, and going on TV with a practiced-genial smile and light admissions of, “Well, now that I’m out, I can say what I really thought!” is enough to win over the embittered liberal viewership of something like “The Daily Show.” A viewership whose collective anger and confusion over the administration’s refusal to admit to even the most basic of truths is voiced by Jon Stewart.

In the nation’s long, painful break-up with the Bush Administration, Jon Stewart seems to be representing our friend who is trying like hell to explain our feelings to this group we don’t want any more part of. He is the Joan Cusack of our John Cusack movie, really.

So there Scott McClellan sat, smiling obliviously, clearly not expecting a verbal pummeling, because apparently he has not learned anything and did practically no prep-work before showing up. He thought he’d get a pat on the back and a “welcome to our side” from Stewart.

Instead, god bless him, Stewart took the opportunity to push the issue of how McClellan and crew’s systematic manipulation of facts leading up to the Iraq war are not the very definition of the word “Lying.” Which McClellan tried to squirm out of, not at all well, before finally, pissily mumbling, “Well were you in the room?” as the practiced smile cracked a little. And the sweating started.

Meanwhile, Stewart’s smile widened, because behind the light ribbing and the “I’m no expert, but, uh…” playing dumb, he was sending McClellan a message: “The book doesn’t matter. We don’t care that you’re sharing weak-ass opinions now that your boss’s already done for. You stood there and lied to us consistently and totally for years, and we want an apology.”

It’s happened a lot, lately. McCain was the last time I noticed Stewart’s interview strategy of laying out basic facts and watching, astonished, as McCain couldn’t satisfactorily reconcile what he’d said with what was true, but wouldn’t admit to the mistake, either.

So Stewart and “The Daily Show” have become a useful way to send a message, from us, to every former insider currently angling for a cable-news pundit job:

"We haven’t forgotten, and fuck you for thinking we might."