Thursday, September 21, 2006

Badgers badgers badgers badgers MUSHROOM MUSHROOM: Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday gleanings


Had a chance to get a LITTLE caught up tonight, even if I STILL haven't seen Prison Break. To that end. . .

--I don't know what the producers of House are doing with this teenager who wants to sleep with House storyline, but I find it sort of fascinating. House's self-destructive streak as his leg pain reappears has been well-built, and I hope he continues to at least consider her offer (he can eventually turn her down, if the producers feel it would be too distancing for him to sleep with her), just because I don't want to see another CRAZY! STALKER! storyline (though, sadly, this appears to be headed that way). The case of the week was kind of boring, but I'll watch Joel Grey in anything. Could have done without the rats chewing on his face, though.

--New show #1: Smith is an example of CBS' attempt to catch up with the quality drama trend that's got all of the networks so aflutter, but it's hampered by the fact that it doesn't quite know what it wants to be and by the fact that it feels preprogrammed to be a quality drama, which is almost always fatal (see: Huff). It's enough to make one wonder why, exactly, these top quality actors all signed on. They do the best with the material they've been given, but this is largely uninteresting stuff that's not delivered with the right panache (a lot of scenes seem to be going for a moody/manly Michael Mann vibe, but they don't ever quite reach the right state of overwroughtness).

Still, there's a certain stylishness to this show that you just don't see on CBS all that often (see below). It's not as stylish as your typical ABC or NBC show, but it's clear a lot of money was spent on this pilot. There's a nice, sly sense of dark humor too (I loved the scene where Simon Baker kicks the cat), and I think I'd rather watch the slyly dark series than the Michael Mann-ish one, even IF the actual thieving was pretty cool.

Still, this feels too prefabricated to be worth keeping up with -- especially in one of the best new seasons in recent memory. It all feels like an attempt by CBS to go against the rules, but it's a little too late. Now, going against the rules IS the new rule. So, of course, you'll see an amoral criminal who really loves his kids and wants to get out of the game. And so on.

If this were, say, last year, I would stick with this all season to see if it improved. As it's this season, I'll give it a few more episodes (I don't really have anything else in the time slot), but it's on a short leash with me.

--I like what I see of The Unit, but it's also a little too rah-rah for me, in a way that never really acknowledges the toll of war on people's psyches. It's always an action-packed show, and it's worth watching for the rough approximation of Mamet-speak its writing staff tries to pull off from week to week. Still, this is the third-best choice in a tough, tough time slot, so I don't think I'll keep up with it. Hence, the photo. You'll get to pretend I've covered it extensively!

Anyway, the premiere was a good episode, with some good twists and turns and some nice insights into the way Special Forces work the way they do. Military dramas used to be a big genre, and I feel like this one is just a few steps off from really reigniting these types of shows. It doesn't help, of course, that the popularity of the war in Iraq has fallen so precipitously as of late.

--New show #2: I like Jericho more than just about everybody, but even I'll admit that it's a show at war with itself. There's the better, grittier, more realistic show about what it would be like to survive a nuclear war in a small town in the middle of nowhere, and there's the cheesier show that works in one action adventure per week and feels network-mandated in some ways, as though CBS found it necessary to have one A-story per episode that repeat viewers could follow.

The problem CBS didn't realize is that the grittier show DOES have A stories viewers can latch on to. There's the opportunity here for doing something that Lost quickly shied away from -- depicting just how tough it would be to survive in a truly apocalyptic situation. I'm not saying that everyone needs to start dying from radiation poisoning (surely the writers could come up with a mostly believable scenario that would keep Jericho isolated but free from harm), and I can see where that would be depressing. But I would like to see a show about rebuilding the needs of the community in a world where small towns have exported most of their business to nearby Wal-marts and such. If I were in my hometown and a nuclear war left me stranded there, it would take time for everyone to find their feet. When Jericho gets into that territory, it feels like a much more interesting, much more riveting show than when it's dealing with rescuing a school bus full of children or avoiding escaped convicts (next week's episode).

The other big problem here has to do with the production values, specifically the music. The music is far too intrusive, almost ruining the chilling moment when the kid sees the mushroom cloud (the one that's been in all of the promos). A Sean Callery or Michael Giacchino would have built the music to this moment, and instead, we get some twinkly attempts at suspenseful music. To do a show like this, CBS has to be prepared to shell out to make it cinematic, and they just don't seem willing to at this point.

The build-up to the mushroom cloud also felt off. It was done in the best "Day After" politics-in-the-background manner, but it felt almost abrupt. And no one discussed afterward who, exactly, might have launched an all-out nuclear assault on the most powerful nation on Earth.

Still, when the show is focusing on notions of people suddenly stranded in a very familiar world, it's a compelling and gripping one. Hopefully, the show is a big enough hit so the producers can abandon the action adventure elements and confront the more realistic and interesting issues.

--Why does anyone watch Criminal Minds? There's a loyal contingent that is dedicated to the show at my work, but it just seems stupid to me every time I watch it.

--The Biggest Loser may be the dumbest thing I've seen on television.

--New show #3: Having now seen more episodes of Vanished, it's amazing how much Kidnapped is like it. But Kidnapped is immeasurably better. I've seen it three times now, and it's been better each time. This is not because it's particularly nuanced or anything, but more because I was able to watch it on its own terms, separating it from the memory of other, better shows. It's not quite 24 yet, but it leaves Prison Break handily in the dust.

A lot of that has to do with casting. Jeremy Sisto is an unusual choice for the lead of a series like this, but he actually works in the role, playing against type nicely. Because you can't quite pin him down as the typical action hero, you're not quite sure what he's going to do next, and his odd line readings really work against the overall conventionality of the show.

The players within the family of the kidnapped boy -- from Dana Delaney to Mykleti Williamson -- are all quite good as well. They help ground this story in a realistic place, even as we're sure to find out that one of them is involved somehow (my money is on Ricky Jay).

The show also makes great use of its New York City location, giving it a real cinematic feel that, say, the CBS shows (or Vanished) just can't touch. The action sequences are well-choreographed. While they take place on a smaller scale than the typical movie action sequence, they are nicely aware of geography, making each one make perfect sense.

Some have said that a kidnapping can't fill a 22-episode season. I'm willing to give the writers the benefit of the doubt -- since they know when the ending point is coming, they can plot out the twists and turns more easily, though I don't know that they will do that (making it up as you go along sometimes works for 24).

This isn't the second coming of 24 as some have insisted, but it's really grown on me, and I'm going to keep tuning in to see what's up next. This was a great introduction to what could be a great series.

Tomorrow night's new shows:

--New show #4: Shark, most notable for starring James Woods, is slightly better than Justice in the "House with Lawyers" sweepstakes that seemed to catch fire with the networks this year. Much of that is due to Woods, who is occasionally something like phenomenal. But I'm not sure that the show ever rises above the level of a blatant House-clone, even with the great direction of Spike Lee. And the willingness to have the character have a CRISIS OF CONSCIENCE in the pilot and join the forces of good really feels like something that never would happen.

Still, it's worth checking out at least once, just for Woods.

--New show #5: (Can you tell I'm getting tired?) Six Degrees is beautifully acted, but the concept and dialogue are a little bit too pretentious. This is another show that would have been a solid favorite any other year but feels a little been-there, done-that this year. Still, it's another show that will be hard to not want to watch the second episode of.

Tomorrow: Libby talks on those next top models.

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