Tuesday, February 22, 2005

A Very Special Episode of Judgment Call (Return to TV, Part 1)

Okay, finally. Back in the game. Return of the Blog. Let's talk about TV. It's been a while, so you're in for some rambling capsule reviews. Lucky you!

My schedule's been kinda weird lately and it's thrown off my TV watching (and, clearly, my blogging) quite a bit (okay, Grand Theft Auto has played a role too). Also, I gotta say, I'm still kind of thrown by what I said the last time I blogged about TV. Despite some definite bight spots here at midseason (generally simply the return of new episodes at all -- what was with that break?), I'm still having a hard time getting excited about much of anything on TV these days. Is it them or me? I blame them. I've picked up NO midseason series and I've jettisoned a couple of old favorites.

The first to go went by way of a New Year's Resolution. It may shock you, but I feel really good about it. No more reality TV. Seriously, I'm done. I haven't suddenly found moral high ground or anything (though Who's Your Daddy and Strange Love skeeve me out immeasurably), I'm simply bored to death with it. We've officially reached glut, ladies and gentlemen, when Bravo, E!, A&E, and even the Discovery Channel and Nick at Nite have knock-offs of every successful network show out there. Last season's Survivor started strong but quickly grew tiresome, The Surreal Life feels forced, and High School Reunion is totally played out (it could just be that for each year the participants get younger I feel immeasurably older). I though I might miss American Idol, but decided I'd be better off without it, and now that it's actually here I watch the commercials and find I don't miss it one bit! Why did I put myself through that redundant, bland torture for three seasons? Why did I spend a single second of my valuable time caring about John Peter Lewis or, worse, Jim Verrarros? Even Fantasia's album is bad! Nor can I get excited in any way about Who Wants to Swap My Average Supernanny for an Extreme Home Trading Towns of Gotti Swan Apprentices in Vegas. So I'm done. No more. Because I don't really want to watch any of it, but I know if I do I'll get sucked in and then feel endlessly dirty, like those scabies-ridden Real World kids (see, who wants to watch that?). And think of all the productive things I could be doing with that time! I could be watching the first two seasons of Alias on DVD! The only condition on which I will happily break my resolution is if there are sequels to Manhunt, Boy Meets Boy, Playing it Straight (which I've just learned you can watch – unaired episodes included -- online!), or Joe Schmo.

The next casualty was 24, which I really should have given up on halfway through last season. I watched the first four hours (which sounds like a lot but they aired over two consecutive nights) and I actually got angry at it. First at the wasted potential of a show that started out so strong and unique, then with at inexplicable new direction the show has taken in creating some of the most irritating, make-me-want-to-reach-through-the-screen-and-smack-them characters on television. I mean, if you're going to dump your entire cast (a very good idea after last season), why not replace them with people who are, I don't know, likeable? And out of everyone, they keep Chloe?? I refuse to believe that someone with her toxic personality and complete lack of professionalism would still be allowed to work at a national security agency. At least I hope to god she wouldn't.

I guess I have different criteria for the suspension of disbelief here than on, say Alias or The OC, shows with an inherent element of fantasy. 24 positions itself as "gritty," and "real" (and therefore "scary"), and in asking us to buy into the real time gimmick, its creators are asking us to buy into that supposed realism. I can buy that Jack is a bit of a superhero, but last season's jaunt to Mexico and amazing powers of recuperation (Buffy didn't heal as quickly as Chase or Tony!) betrayed the show's very premise. This year, not a single CTU staffer belongs in the world that was crafted so carefully in season one. In addition to Chloe, there's a man who appears to be at least mildly retarded, a woman with obvious ulterior motives, and that utterly unstable woman who runs the place. I refuse to believe that the head of CTU would ignore obviously good intelligence and strategy, misappropriate agency resources, and put the country in real and obvious danger just because of a personal grudge. The President, maybe, but not the head of CTU! I stuck with, say, Dawson's Creek to the bitter, dreadful end because I cared about those characters and was invested in what happened to them. I don't just not care about the new CTU-ers, I despise every single one of them and keep rooting for terrorists to blow them up. That can't be good.

But mostly the 24 gimmick has just gotten old. "Something's going to happen at 8:00." "That's in ten minutes!" Thud-thud thud-thud, commercial break. I'm over it.

Life As We Know It (I refuse to give in to your lowercase fetish!) has actually been cancelled, but since I didn't know that until after I decided to dump it myself I still get to be smug about it. However dramatic it may seem while we're in it, for most people high school is ultimately pretty boring, and so is portraying it realistically. Not that LAWKI was exactly realistic, with the teacher sex and bizarre musicals and Kelly Osbourne, but where's the intrigue? Where are the half-naked boys? (That's for all you Googlers out there.) They actually achieved the difficult feat of taking a cast of likeable, attractive people and made them utterly dull.

Thank ABC, then, for the perfectly-timed return of Alias to bring me out of the TV doldrums. Lots of people bitched about last season, but a bad season of Alias is still better than any other series on television right now (I said the same thing about season six of Buffy, and last year's Alias was way better than that!) and the delay of the season made me sad. It was probably a very smart move for the network though, with the new timeslot and lead-in of Lost, and if that means the show gets more viewers and is on the air longer, it's fine with me! (I'm sure they're glad I approve.)

Anyway, so far the season has been very strong, thanks to the wise choice of getting back to basics. All that CIA bureaucracy and government stuff was unwieldy, and the characters were far too split up. It doesn't entirely make sense that Sloane has been given command of anything legal, but at least it restores the fun dynamic from season one. Dixon in the field again is great fun, and his disguises rival Syd's (anyone but me getting the Buckaroo Banzai reference with the dreadlock wig? Anyone? Anyone? John Big Booty?).

But it's not just a spy show, of course, so even though the core original cast (plus a couple) are working together in a basement again, all the interpersonal stuff from the last three years is in there. And while I'm getting tired of the We Hate Sloane Club (we get it!), it adds some much needed depth to all the ass-kicking. Though of course, the ass-kicking still rocks, and the fight choreographers and costume designers have kept things very exciting and fun this season, with actual good actors instead of vapid action heroes to keep us interested in these people's fates. The plot twists and turns have been a little lighter, but I suppose that's partly about trying to hold on by those new viewers by easing them in. I thought the exposition in the first episode was expertly handled, especially considering how much of it there was! I'm also a big fan of how seriously they take their continuity, with things that happened in the pilot still resonating. It looks like they're planning to bring in some old guest stars and old story loose ends (Rambaldi has hardly even been mentioned this year!), and I'm looking forward to seeing where it all goes.

JJ Abrahm's other baby, Lost, is a huge "water cooler hit," of course, and I love it, but I have to admit the glow is fading. I just wish something would happen already! The premise is great, the structure is inventive, and of course we know Abrams knows how to cast, but the pace has got to pick up. There have been weeks when nothing substantial has happened at all. I suppose it's possible that everyone's backstory flashbacks will intertwine eventually (as they've already begun to) and become entirely relevant, but I didn't think we needed another episode devoted entirely to Charlie's shady past. Or Sawyer's shady past. Or Kate's shady past. What about Hurley? What about that kindly black woman? I'd like more about the possible magic powers of the kid, please, and maybe some more not-quite-incest sex? (What's with Ian Sommerhalder and the incest shows?) I keep watching because I want to know where it's all going, but there are too many loose ends, and not enough forward motion for my taste. I mean, I know they have to keep the series going, but this isn't Gilligan's Island and they need to pick up some loose friends. And maybe have the balls to kill off a regular. But if Alias has taught me anything, it's to have faith in Abrams, and that patience and attention to detail pay off.

I find ABC's other big hit, Desperate Housewives, compelling and appealing in every possible way! It's really hard to pull off such a crazy blend of serious drama, mystery, comedy and camp, and they're doing an amazing job. Casting is probably everything, and I care deeply about every one of these characters, including the "bad" ones. I don't really care about Mary Alice much at all (though I do like Brenda Strong and wish they'd give her more flashbacks), and just love watching these people's lives unfold. Which is a good thing, because (unlike Lost) they'll have to solve the mystery eventually, but it seems like there are plenty of stories to keep the show going. Someone has learned from the mistakes of Twin Peaks, which tried to suddenly introduce a bunch of plots in the second season after nobody cared about Laura Palmer anymore. In a way, Who Killed Mary Alice has become a "B" plot already, behind the live women's lives and family dramas, and that's a very good thing. Though all the elements are familiar, I can't think of another show that's been structured quite like this, and the gamble seems to be paying off. Yay! An entirely good review of something!

The West Wing has been alternately exciting and dull since the New Year. I love what's been going on in the White House this season. The MS stuff is a little heavy-handed and maudlin, but it's nice that they've come back to it, and that early storyline has some real consequences. It also gives Stockard Channing more to do after being pretty wasted last year. CJ as the chief of staff was a brilliant way to shake it up, and showcase Allison Janney in a way she hasn't been in a while. The writing's back on track, and far more Sorkin-esque than it's been since he left. The old characters feel like themselves again.

The new characters are tricky though. I don't understand how Josh Malina (I always think of him as Jeremy from Sports Night and can't seem to remember his WW character's name) went from being the hot young go-getter Democrat on the crazy mission for the underdog, to a complete asshole driven by blind ambition. It doesn't make any kind of sense. And did they ever replace Sam? I adore Kristen Chenowith, but they have to move her beyond cute and chirpy soon. This is the White House, after all.

More problematic for me are the campaign episodes, happening every other week. Good things never come of splitting up an ensemble this good, so having Josh and Donna out on their own (and not even together) is a problem. As is showcasing asshole Will (that's his name! Will Bailey!). But mostly these episodes just bore me to death. I know they're essential to the longevity of the series, and I suppose they think they're letting us in on an important part of the political process, but we've seen far better campaign material in flashbacks to Bartlet's. And then there's the problem of Jimmy Smitts being dull. I like Jimmy Smitts, generally, but this character and everything about his plot make me yawn. I do love the prospect of him becoming president, though, because his wife is played by the fabulous Teri Polo (unsung straight-woman of Meet the Parents/Fockers, and Dan's love interest from Sports Night) and it'd be fun to see her play the First Lady. It's hard, though, to know that the "race" is between Smitts and Alan Alda (there was a great article in the Times about the future of the show a few weeks ago), because it makes it impossible to care about Santos' "struggle" against Russell and Hoynes. Plus, Alda has proved more charismatic and fun in three scenes than Smitts has in half a season, but I doubt they'll actually go with a Republican winner since it would mean losing the entire current cast, instead of just a few of them.

This week was the first campaign episode I've found moderately interesting, and I wonder if that was actually calculated, since it was also the first time the fictional voters found Santos interesting. Well, I'm curious to see where it all goes, and like I said before I'm pretty invested in this show after six years. At least it's great half the time…

Okay, it's getting late and I'm getting sleepy, but I've been trying to get this post up for days (I'll post about why Judgment Call has been neglected for so long soon too), so I'm going to make this one a two-parter. Tomorrow, The OC, Everwood, Jack and Bobby, Carnivale and Unscripted! Stay tuned...

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