Sometime in early September, as the networks ramped up their endless promotions of the new TV season, I found myself experiencing a new sensation regarding TV: the feeling of dread. I wasn't dreading the new shows per se, and I looked forward to the return of old favorites, but when, oh God, when am I supposed to watch them all?
Lately my television viewing has been transformed. The sudden ease with which my DVR records entire seasons of TV at the push of a button. The advent of interesting TV series on cable stations. The knowledge that no matter what I'm watching, I'm likely missing whatever will be the topic of water cooler discussion tomorrow at work. The new Lost/24/Desperate Housewives inspired trend of serialized cliffhanger shows. The fact that I can go away for a week and return to find my DVR stacked with 80 hours of TV which now, suddenly, rather than being fun entertainment, is more shit I need to catch up on or be lost for the rest of the season. It's all a bit overwhelming, actually.
This feeling was only intensified when I received new TV season themed issue of Entertainment Weekly which kindly included a handy calendar grid showing a person exactly what to watch and what to record to watch later. I watch a lot of TV. I really do. But I don't know that I have four hours a night to devote to never missing anything. There are dishes to be washed and yoga classes to take. I'd like to think that television complements my life, rather than supplants it. I know, crazy talk. What am I becoming? One of those "my TV only gets PBS" wackos
(Didn't watch Ken Burns' The War, by the way. Miss South Carolina told me how it ends, with the US, Japan & Germany kicking commie Russian & Chinese a**, and Ronald Regan tearing down the Berlin Wall with his bare hands after George Bush drove tanks through Tiananmen Square.)
So it was with trepidation that I approached the new offerings. My new viewing rota had to include room for my old favorites; namely, How I Met Your Mother and Ugly Betty, with occasional visits to NCIS, CSI:NY and Chris Noth episodes of L&O:CI. Although I'm not against serial dramas on principal, I was wary to include anything in the lineup that would crash my house of cards if I missed a single episode. I continue my general ban on reality television that doesn't star Tim Gunn, or prime time game shows. (Yes, I am smarter than a 5th grader. No, I don't wish to dance with any former cast members of Saved By The Bell.) For a show to be added to my permanent roster, it must have decent entertainment value, which can be determined by a simple formula:
EV= (Plot+Humor+Suspense)Enjoyment/Time+Emotional Investment. Here are some of the early returns.
Damages - (FX Tuesday) Like a shady law firm, Damages tricked its way onto my lineup. It started airing in August, confounding me into thinking it would be over before the regular season began. Now I'm hooked like a cheap lawyer to an ambulance. Damn you Glenn Close! The music for the opening credits involves a growling voice singing just two lines: "Little lamb" and "When I get through with you, there wont be anything left." As a viewer please note, this will be your only warning.
The show operates very effectively in a flashback format, unspooling the tale of Ellen Parsons, a newly minted lawyer who finds herself tempted into working for Hewes & Associates, led by the indomitable Patty Hewes, aka Glenn Close. But I'm already getting ahead of myself. The first scene of the entire series is a beautiful woman, who we come to learn is Ellen Parsons, stumbling bloody and terrified down a busy Manhattan street. Each episode scatters more puzzle pieces on the table, gradually assembling a story of how this bright penny of a lass stumbled into the web of Glenn Close and her adversary Arthur Frobisher, played with gleeful amoral zest by Ted Danson, and ultimately ended up in prison for the brutal murder of her fiance. In this respect, the series reminds me a great deal of the French film Irreversible, a brutal film, not for the faint of heart, which begins with a horrifying murder and rape and then continues backwards to reveal how the principal characters ended up in such a wretched place.
I have not been this entertained by the tale of a young lawyer led astray by an evil boss since The Devil's Advocate; a film in which the Glenn Close role was played by Al Pacino who was actually playing Satan. Glenn Close is perfectly, richly, wickedly, manipulatively eeeevil in this show (for her first act, she orders a bloody hit on the puppy of a nervous witness). If I had to bet on Al Pacino's Satan, Esq vs Close's Patty Hewes, I'd flee the country.
EV= (100+100+100)100/100+100 = 150
Torchwood - (BBC-America Saturday) As a fan of science fiction it is true that I admire Battlestar Galactica for the gravity (no pun intended) it has brought to the genre, with the politics and moral quandaries and philosophical musings on the nature of human suffering and what all. But sometimes you know, you just want to see an alien resembling a man in a gorilla suit and a diving helmet get blown to smithereens. It's also true that since the advent of the endless series Doctor Who, the Brits have really cornered the market on science fiction with a big side order of cheese. Now we have Torchwood, a series not only inspired by but actually spun off from Doctor Who, which very enthusiastically brings the cheese, along with the aliens and the sex and, although it has not been seen yet, sex with aliens and possibly even sex with cheese.
Torchwood, as it is introduced to us in the opening credits, is an organization "outside the government, beyond the police. Tracking down alien life on Earth, arming the human race for the future." Torchwood is led by this guy, otherwise known as 'that guy who always plays Americans on BBC ', whose name for the purposes of this program is Captain Jack Harkness. Depending on what press release or episode you see, Captain Jack (aka Will Get You High Tonight) is a 50 zillion year old time traveler from the future, a former American World War I (or is it II? I didn't watch Ken Burns so I don't know) commander mysteriously become immortal or a hot blooded omnisexual Lothario with an attractive person of either gender in every intergalactic port. Our eyes into this amazing organization is Gwen Cooper, a Cardiff Wales police officer who wrong place/wrong times herself onto the Torchwood team by helping them uncover a murderer amongst one of their own.
Torchwood itself is a secret lab/base, located under the fountain of the Cardiff opera house, which despite having no government or police support has a very respectable armory and fleet of black cars. The plots are beyond ridiculous, as they should be, only occasionally making any kind of sense.
There was the episode where Torchwood's inexplicably non-Asian majordomo named Ianto attempts to revive his half automated girlfriend in the secret basement of the secret base, causing a great deal of hell to break loose when it turns out that she's actually the False Maria robot escaped from Metropolis. Also, she's murderous, crazy, and wants to turn the world into an army of cyber-bots. Ianto has to kill her and it's all very sad, tears all around, except of course from Jack, who does not truck much with emotionalism. Unlike his alter-ego Doctor Who, careening through the universe with a devil-may-care, "isn't this all just the neatest" attitude, Jack is more of a "shoot 'em all and sort out the pieces later" type.
One of the fun things about Torchwood is its attitude about sex, which is to say characters in Torchwood seem to have sex and enjoy it without the requisite emotional breakdown or plot collision required by other television shows. Well, except for Ianto. That robot girlfriend thing didn't end well for him. In the pilot episode, Torchwood member Owen surreptitiously borrows some alien technology, cleverly disguised as an Old Spice bottle, which makes one totally irresistible. Leaving a bar with a young woman upon whom he has unleashed this power, they are approached by her enraged boyfriend ready to pummel Owen into a pulp. When angry boyfriend gets close enough to Owen's Alien Old Spice however, he shoves his girlfriend aside and begins snogging Owen himself. Owen then cheerfully hails a cab for the three of them. In the end, absolutely nothing horrible happens to Owen for using Alien Old Spice to manipulate a threesome, and why should it? I'm sure the aliens have excellent condom technology as well.
Journeyman-(NBC Monday) I had ulterior motives for watching Journeyman. I'll just state these up front. I'm very fond of Kevin McKidd. Have been ever since he played the naive friend in Trainspotting whose want of a girl led him to drug addiction and want of a kitten led him to death. Since then I've been a firm believer that what the world needs more of is Kevin. The plot of Journeyman also resembles very closely the plot of one of my favorite books of all time, The Time Traveler's Wife. In both, a man discovers that he is capable of time travel or, more accurate, incapable of not time traveling. He has no control over when it happens or where/when he may end up, and his family is stuck dealing with the consequences of his unpredictable schedule.
There's some mystery in the background of Journeyman's main character, Dan Vasser, which may or may not be influencing what is happening to him. He was engaged to a woman who died and who, it now appears, is also stuck in a time travel loop. Although he is now happily married with a son, there's a suggestion that after his fiancee died, Dan went off the rails into drug addiction.
This adds an interesting level of complexity to Dan's situation. When he suddenly starts disappearing for days at a time, then returning with tales of time travel, his wife and boss are, perhaps obviously, more inclined to believe he's off the wagon. His brother, a San Francisco cop, is also not inclined to be sympathetic, whether because of his no-nonsense cop demeanor or the fact that Dan stole and married his girlfriend is not entirely clear.
To the show's benefit, Journeyman plays Dan's predicament totally straight, leaving the viewers in frustrated sympathy not only with Dan but with his wife and friends. After all, if your ex-addict husband disappeared for a week, insisting he was off time traveling against his will, you'd be tempted to stage an intervention too.
Big Bang Theory - (CBS Monday) The only reason I found myself watching The Big Bang Theory is due to its lead in, How I Met Your Mother (Still suited up. Still legen- wait for it -dary), which I imagine is no suprise to CBS. But that's not why I'm still watching (I have been known to turn off the TV when there's nothing on I want to see...fer reals). The story of two unrepentent physics nerds whose lives are upturned by a sweet, pretty Cheesecake Factory waitress moving in next door is actually kind of endearing.
Johnny Galeki plays Leonard, the more normal of the two nerds, if by the word "normal" you mean the one that recognizes there's another world beyond quarks and Halo which he finds himself intrigued by. Jim Parsons plays the more unrepentantly geekish of the two, Sheldon; a man who organizes his breakfast cereal by fiber content, and who sneaks into the new neighbor's apartment to organize her kitchen. Both are funny, although Sheldon really makes the show, providing a wry Greek chorus to Leonard's attempts to charm the cheesecake waitress.
If there's a weakness in Big Bang Theory, it's the character of said waitress Penny. Although pleasant enough, that's really all she is so far. Pretty and pleasant. Watching Leonard struggle for her affections, I can't help but feel that maybe he could do better. CBS undercut Penny's appeal even further by introducing the always awesome Sara Gilbert as Leonard's lab partner, a pairing I see as being far more entertaining for both Leonard and the audience.
Bionic Woman - (NBC Wednesday) There's a sad truth that most creators of action series featuring righteous babes must reckon with. Except for the obvious exception, none of them are Joss Whedon. This leads us to the sad truth that Whedon-ites themselves must face, which is that he has ruined us. We want it all. We want the action and the suspense and the funny and the smart and the timely and the poignant all wrapped up with a kick ass bow. We know it exists. We've seen the promised land. So, when a series with the pedigree and fanfare accompanying The Bionic Woman arises, we approach it with wistful anticipation. It won't be Whedon-tastic of course, but others, like J.J. Abrams, have certainly done admirable jobs with the premise of a beautiful young woman who can kick your a** seven ways til Sunday.
Bionic Woman arrives with a promising pedigree. It shares a producer, David Eick, with Battlestar Galactica, a show I've expressed an embarrassing amount of admiration for in the past. The connection between the shows is evident, from the mournful Enya does heavy metal soundtrack to the presence of some familiar BSG faces, notably Katee Sakoff as Sarah Corvus, the first and now hopping mad Bionic Woman. Unfortunately it turns out that the gallows humor and general gravity that works so well for BSG completely sucks the air out of Bionic Woman.
Jamie Summers awakes from a car accident to discover her boyfriend has bionicized her, sans her consent, and she is now the property of the Berkut Group, "a private clandestine group dedicated to stopping rogue organizations from ending civilization as we know it." This statement is offered, gravely, by Jamie's new boss Jonas Bledsoe, played by Miguel Ferrer as an irascible hard ass with a secret heart of gold. I can imagine the conversation between Ferrar and his agent: "So, you're the boss, an irascible hard ass with a secret heart of gold." "Gee, I don't know. Sounds like a stretch. I don't know if I can...oh wait, that's what I do. OK, fine." He does pretty well with the role considering he has to deliver lines like "Sarah Corvus will break through a wall to get what she wants. Just make sure you're not the wall." Then, just in case you missed the profundity there, the next shot is one of Sarah Corvus doing punching practice on a cheap hotel wall.
Jamie's pre-bionic life includes the guardianship of a younger sister who has a name but might as well be called Bait. Jamie is being stalked by Sarah Corvus, the first, now malfunctioning, Bionic Babe, who ended up on the wrong side of the Berkut Group when she massacred fourteen of their men. Sarah thinks that Jamie is the key to repairing her malfunctioning self, and pops up occasionally with grave demands like "I need you to meet me at the sulfur plant." I was so hoping that "the sulfur plant" would turn out to be kin to Roger Ebert's famous "spark and steam plant", which produces nothing but sparks and steam, a process which apparently requires a large supply of very heavy chains hanging from the ceiling. Unfortunately, it just looked like a gravel pit.
Jamie and Sarah take turns spying on each other, having heartfelt conversations about the meaning of being Bionical and beating the crap out of each other. We know that Jamie is good and Sarah is bad because Jamie's bionics make her eye glow green, while Sarah's make hers glow red. Absolutely no one in this show appears to be having any kind of good time. I know I'm not.