Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Shield finale open thread

(Too busy to blog tonight, but I want to keep this site up and running as much as possible, so jump below for some quick, spoiler-y thoughts and contribute yours in comments.)

The Shield, I think, was a show that actually GOT BETTER as it went along because it was able to use the weight of events that had come before to inform events in whatever its current season was to great effect. To that end, the more action-oriented season one (which really kind of feels like 24 and is of-a-piece with the immediately post-Sept. 11 milieu it sprung forth from) now seems to me to be one of the series' weakest seasons.

The finale did a good job of managing to avoid expectations while still coming up with a fitting ending for its despicable central character (he's not in jail or dead, but he's stuck in an office job that seems ill-suited to him, and he's lost everyone he ever cared about). The conclusion of the Shane storyline was as gut-wrenching as anything I've seen on TV (particularly Vic avoiding looking at the photos of the aftermath), and I loved that final scene between Chiklis and Pounder, two actors really giving it their all.

I also liked how the finale perfectly laid out where these people are going to be for the rest of their lives without feeling the need to tell you. There was no ambiguity, but there was also no real narrative hand-holding.

The Shield has always been a series I've been a little skeptical about (I find some of its brutishness in its storytelling a turn-off), but the way the series ended has sort of elevated all of it for me post-airing. I may just have to go back and revisit all of it.

What did you think?



I think the term "Very Special Episode" went out of vogue sometime around when Family Ties went off the air. Tonight's House had all the trappings though: an extended running time (eight extra minutes), a shot of melodrama added to the usual formula, and a possible exit for a major character. How did it all play out?

I've been a fan of Zeljko Ivanek since Homicide and loved his work on Emmy-winning work on Damages, not to mention his scene-stealing in John Adams. Don't get me wrong, Ivanek is good in his role as a patient who takes House, Thirteen, and others hostage to secure a diagnosis. But the role as written is so functional, the character so single-minded, that we never get to see Ivanek really strut his stuff until the very end. As usual, the point of this episode was to comment on House: his cynicism, his estrangement from others, and what he's doing about it.

House is actually pretty noble for most of this episode, trying to treat the patient and get hostages released with no one getting hurt. (I liked the use of Cuddy's wall as a board for the differential) I won't spoil the ending for those with TiVo, but late in the episode there is a moment when House could end the crisis but doesn't take the chance because the patient hasn't been diagnosed. While it seems absurd this behavior is actually entirely consistent with House's character, and anything less would be a disappointment.

But the real star tonight is Olivia Wilde's Thirteen, who as we've already learned this season seems to be running out the clock after that Huntington's diagnosis. Thirteen is forced by the hostage taker to take all of the meds that he takes as an insurance against poisoning, and the drugs combined with her disease leave her near death. Again no spoilers, but by the end of the episode Thirteen has in effect become the anti-House - choosing life and human connection over self-involved misery. I wasn't really surprised by the way anything resolved itself in this episode, but there's real potential in the House-Thirteen relationship. How will one doctor's attitude towards sickness and her own life (as she undergoes a Huntington's clinical trial) influence the other? Maybe something special came out of this week's House after all.


Monday, November 24, 2008

What's the matter with Fringe?

Everything that's wrong with Fringe, Fox's newest drama hit (though I use that term pretty loosely) is eminently fixable if the producers will just look back to the show's most obvious influence -- The X-Files. However, I don't really expect anyone to actually go and fix Fringe, because it's just good enough that it can probably skate by for years and years and years without anyone ever turning it off. It's solid B television, which we can definitely use more of in a world of Knight Rider and Deal or No Deal and 'Til Death. But the sad thing about Fringe is that it doesn't even seem to be bothered with attempting greatness, instead settling for being a solid, middle-of-the-road programmer. I enjoy the show from week to week, but it evaporates as soon as it's over. This is a disappointment, mainly because of the people behind the show (it's J.J. Abrams' first official creation since Lost -- before that, he created Felicity and Alias, two highly addicting shows in their own ways). If Fringe came from the producers of October Road (as the surprisingly compelling Life on Mars does), we might all be hailing it as a solid step up. But that's the price you pay when you're a TV supergenius producer. David Sims and I will be dealing more directly with Abrams in a future chat here, but for now, let's take a look at the five biggest things wrong with Fringe and see if we can't fix them to turn this B show into an A show that keeps us riveted from week to week.

Anna Torv is too bland to be the lead of this show. This is kind of a hard thing to just fix because Torv's character -- Olivia -- is pretty central to the premise of the show (there's just no good way to have all of these characters come together without her as the focal point. On another show, you MIGHT be able to kill her off and have some other character fill the same role, but since this is a hit, presumably we're going to just tweak the formula, not upend it. I don't know if Torv is struggling with the accent, or if the character is just really underwritten. I suspect it's both (Abrams tends to write types in the early going of his shows and then let the actors play the hell out of them -- he just didn't manage to find the actor to breathe life into this one).

How do we fix this? This is the one I just don't know about. We've got Darin Morgan on the show, and he was good at finding the odder angles of the glum Fox Mulder on The X-Files. Maybe we turn him loose on her. Either that or we elevate another character to work alongside her more consistently. Maybe Joshua Jackson?

In general, the ensemble is too overpopulated. This show has way too many characters. You've got Olivia. Then you have the Bishop boys. All three of these characters are probably necessary (unless you can figure out how to make the show work without Olivia -- I can't). Then you've got Lt. Cedric Daniels, who is pretty good as an authority figure but probably doesn't need to be in EVERY episode (he'd make a good recurring, Skinner figure, if we're looking at X-Files again). THEN you have assistant girl, who is fun (and David's favorite character, I think) but also incredibly unnecessary. THEN you have Massive Dynamics lady and Olivia's dead boyfriend, both of whom are effectively recurring but could be in a LOT fewer episodes. And finally, you have Kirk Acevedo who turns up every so often to do one or two random things. Trying to service all of these characters takes away from the cases, which, in general, are the best thing on the show (I've quite liked the crazy stuff in the last couple of episodes).

How do we fix this? Bump Daniels down to 13 episodes or so and take him out of the main credits. Take Massive Dynamics lady and dead boyfriend down to 4-6 episodes each. Dump Kirk Acevedo entirely (I like the actor, but the character is a non-starter). Keep assistant girl around to make David happy. I know that the writers probably have massive plans for all of these characters, but they're kinda sapping the show's energy right now. And, in general, the stuff they're attached too (The Pattern) is too thin to be strung out piecemeal week to week. It's certainly no Lost metaphysical hooey.

The show has too few commercials. I actually do really like this idea of Fox's to have some of its more anticipated shows have fewer commercials (the running-time bumps up against 50 minutes, which is closer to how long shows ran in the early '80s). But this tends to slow the show's pace down a little bit too much, and that means the series is constantly inserting these scenes where everyone talks about what's happened or what's about to happen or the things that the series science is based in. This means lots of exposition that would probably be cut in a 44 minute cut (which would run about the length of every other show on TV) gets left in, and it tends to slow the show down. I suspect that Joss Whedon will know exactly what to do with this extra real estate on Dollhouse (a show I remain optimistic for, despite the bad signs), but the writers on Fringe are still writing to the 44-minute template and then vamping to fill the extra room.

How do we fix this? I suspect this will take care of itself in season two. The limited commercials experiment has been a success for Fox, but not enough of one that they probably won't go back to standard-length episodes come next year. While 22 minutes is too short to do an episode of comedy in, generally, 44 minutes is often close to just about right for an episode of drama on broadcast network.

People buy into the fringe science too easily. One of the things that made The X-Files work was its delicate interplay between skeptic and believer. Obviously, the series fell on the side of the believers (as most television inevitably will), but the dialectic between Scully and Mulder was elastic enough to sustain a whole show and play to a variety of tones. EVERYONE on Fringe has little-to-no reason to not believe in the fringe science Walter Bishop uses, so that limits the series into which kinds of tones it can use. The series is essentially backed into a gloomy corner by the fact that everyone is pretty sure fringe science is real and that The Pattern is really happening.

How do we fix this? This is another thing where the premise of the show is probably too set in stone to really fix this. I guess the thing to do would be to have Bishop's methods fail once in a while and have good, old-fashioned policework prevail. But I'm pretty stymied by this one.

In general, the tone of the show is too unvariable. As mentioned above, the show is pretty unrelentingly dark. There's some humor, but it's of the "Isn't our mad scientist wacky!?" variety, rather than the sort of character-based interplay that made The X-Files work more often than not. The X-Files was able to get away with being a different KIND of show from week to week too -- it was a monster movie one week, a serial killer thriller the next and a goofy comedy the next. Hell, they worked in love stories, comic book type things and psychological mind games along the way as well. Because Fringe seems deadset on tying itself so closely to "reality," the series CAN'T really break out of its box because it can't tell, say, a ghost story or a Bigfoot story without offering some sort of explanation at the end (The X-Files could be pretty ambiguous when it wanted to).

How do we fix this? I think you just try as you might to tell as many different kinds of stories as you can with this series. This is something the writers can probably fix on their own just by varying the TYPES of stories they're telling. Honestly, I think they could go even goofier.

Tomorrow: I dunno yet. Probably something pretty scattered, as I'm going to be out late.