Sunday, July 29, 2007

Summer TV Watch, Part Two

It's no surprise that the comedies premiering off-season, with the exception of Flight of the Conchords, all got lousy reviews. Networks tend to save the funny stuff for when it'll pay the bills. I had low expectations for the non-premium channel dramas, too, except for Damages, with FX's mixed success at creating good drama and because I couldn't figure out what the hell it was about from the teasers. So there's been a lot that I'm not even giving a chance, and I don't think I'm missing out on anything, but let me know if I am.

Creature Comforts: I had the misfortune of having a video store clerk recommend to me the British first series of Creature Comforts. I was in my "Nick Park plus modeling clay is the coolest combination on earth since peanut butter and jelly" phase, and Wallace and Gromit was already checked out. Creature Comforts left me completely flummoxed — because no one bothered explaining the conceit to me. It's genuine interviews (with shut-ins, in the original incarnation) animated through anthropomorphized animals, so think Crank Yankers or Fonejacker, with some insight into the human condition. On reflection, it seemed like something tailor-made for me, but it was boring at the time and I didn't feel like giving Creature Comforts another go.

Heartland: I totally forgot about this show, where the dad from Everwood plays a transplant doctor who has issues. Who doesn't, these days? But Heartland has three strikes going against it: its name is a pun (and not a very good one), its name implies that it's the most inoffensive and unchallenging medical show since twice-removed Golden Girls spin-off Nurses, and frankly I don't think there's anything Treat Williams can do to put a dent in my man-crush on Dr. Gregory House. Morena Baccarin, maybe.

Side Order of Life and State of Mind: They're like Lifetime movies-of-the-week that keep revisiting you, bringing you into the sharing circle and spreading mild PTA gossip. At least Lifetime's gotten bored with droll but hot detective shows. (Yes, I caught... uh, glimpses of them all.)

The Kill Point: I guess I'm turned off by anything on Spike TV that's just dripping with testosterone, but The Kill Point got some favorable reviews. Maybe if I run out of other things to watch...

Greek: Clark Duke isn't gonna save this one for me. On a related note, did you know that some wonderful person put all eighteen episodes of Undeclared up on Bittorrent?

Saving Grace: This seems to happen a lot in television: a bunch of people come up with the same mediocre idea, like a song lyric remembering contest, at the same time. Saving Grace is about its protagonist, conveniently named Grace, and her divine redeemer. Sounds a little familiar, doesn't it? The hook is that the troubled soul in Saving Grace is a woman, so naturally that's gonna create some problems, plus snag the viewers who are missing their Lifetime crime procedurals. But there's always The Closer, which seems to get by just fine without the angels.

With all that out of the way, I've got plenty of time to drink in what looks most promising. Right now, that's Matthew Weiner's Mad Men, on AMC, the network that seems to think Murder by Numbers, Psycho II, and The Flinstones in Viva Rock Vegas are all "classic" movies. I had lost faith. Now, I can't attest to the historical accuracy of Mad Men, set in an advertising agency in the 1960's, right before the fiction of American domestic bliss was about to crumble under the counter-cultural revolution, but it does a very nice job of capturing the impending transitional, with both the hindsight of the audience and the blase indifference of the characters, unaware of what's sneaking up on them. Don Draper embodies the cavalier attitude of the era, where nothing can ever go wrong and the power dynamics between men and women, individuals and their families, and consumers and their products will never change, even as the first episode's tobacco company sub-plot hints at the shift. Draper's gotten by hawking the health benefits of light cigarettes ("four out of five doctors smoke 'em") and is helpless when the government steps in and bans that tactic.

I really hope this show stays on the air, because I'd love to see if and how Draper re-manufactures his relationships with his clients, family, and the women in his life as the culture changes. I'm also looking forward to watching the group dynamics among the characters marginalized in 1950's society: the gay illustrator; Rachel Menken, the Jewish department store owner; the secretarial pool, not to mention the decline of the "all-powerful" telephone operators (including Mel!!!). Mad Men has built-in potential, and I expect good things from it.

Damages, on FX, is a wild card, depending on how it conceives, and how Glenn Close plays, Patty Hewes against the FX slimeball protagonist tradition. I went into Damages thinking of Patty as a Vic Mackey-type of antihero, a compromised person whose (little) goodness comes from her struggle out of her morality play, but now I'm not so sure. The pilot, after two twists that I totally called and a gratuitous third one that left me feeling dirty, had more of a Nip/Tuck vibe. You're a voyeur into a world where everyone's utterly reprehensible: Patty, her billionaire nemesis Ted Danson (in a role I thought only Tim Curry was allowed to play), and all of their tool henchmen lawyer acolytes. I'm afraid it's not going to be a story so much as psychological porn.

Thrown into this mess is just out of law school Ellen Parsons, who I'd love to identify with if she weren't so damn spineless and politically dense. The pilot moves back and forth in time, starting with "Six Months Later," when Ellen stumbles out of her (?) apartment building naked and covered in blood, refusing to talk to the police — and we don't have a lot of information here, so there might be a reason for her behavior here. But it doesn't really contrast with Ellen's denseness when the first guessable twist is revealed — when we all figure out why Patty hired Ellen, but the scene is written and played so gently, and with such distance from the topic at hand, that the question wasn't how Ellen is going to use this revelation but if she's even aware that it's been revealed. Her endgame in the pilot is so beyond stupid, so beyond deductive reasoning that I actually felt bad for her, like Patty's taking advantage of a child or something. Maybe she smartens up quickly, and there's your story, but right now it seems like we're focused on the antagonism between Patty and Ted Danson and Ellen's just a pawn.

Finally, Burn Notice, which along with Monk, Psych, and repeats of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, is perpetually being shown on the USA network. It's a guilty pleasure... well, I've caught four episodes so far, but never from start to finish, and while they're not the horrendous dreck this action-spy comedy could have been, it's not all that much pleasure either.

I think the producers were hoping that all it would take to make this show work is pretty pictures of Miami and ex-secret agent or something Michael narrating obvious tidbits about spycraft for you to use next time you're stuck in a Syrian prison or something. Remember the voice-overs from the first two seasons of Veronica Mars, and how they were always in there because the execs at UPN thought their viewers were morons (maybe they had good reasons...) who couldn't follow the action on the screen at that very moment? Imagine that, and pretend Veronica had to freeze the action and put a subtitle under each new character, with their name, occupation, and relevance to the plot. It's not like they've come up with such a unique take on the Cuban drug dealer that I'm completely stumped or anything.

Lazy, lazy writing. Also lazy: Bruce Campbell, who's gained about a hundred pounds of fat since the Evil Dead movies. And what's with all these scenes of people doing their nefarious business in fancy restaurants or nightclubs? Maybe plot your world domination scheme in private, where there aren't a hundred people who could be listening in or seeing you act all sketchy. This is why rooms were invented, people.

Maybe I just miss MI:5.