Case Study 81: Brides of Christ, Episode 1–“Diane”

Original Airdate: September 4th, 1991 on Australian Broadcasting Corporation

You’ll have to forgive me, because going from schlocky family sitcoms to prestige dramas for serious Australian grown-ups induces a certain amount of whiplash. Brides of Christ is a six episode miniseries depicting a convent of Catholic nuns in 1960s Sydney. It’s a historical drama and there’s unlikely to be much chance for sex and violence? We’re in Masterpiece Theatre territory here. It’s probably not as much fun as Call the Midwife but it’s also hard to believe it shares a medium with Family Ties.

Strengths

  • Fresh subject matter. Have there ever been any other shows about nuns? As near as I can tell the closest things are The Flying Nun, which was clearly not intended to be taken seriously, and the aforementioned business about midwives, which has nuns but is primarily about, you know, midwives. Plus, those nuns are Anglican.
  • Insight into Catholicism. So I was raised Roman Catholic but I’ve never been a nun, and I’ve never had much interaction with them outside of pissing them off in Sunday school. A lot of this was new even for me, and this effect was made more pronounced by the temporal remove. Brides chronicles one of the more tumultuous moments in recent Church history, rivalled only by a certain spotlight-worthy story that broke in Boston around the turn of the century. While child molestation was definitely happening in the church in the 1960s, fresh-faced postulant Sister Catherine (Josephine Byrnes, The Matrix Reloaded) is out of the loop. She’s more interested in tensions in the church between conservatives and disciples of the reform-minded Pope John XXIII, or “Johnny X-X-one-one-one,” as Catherine’s goofy friend Sister Paul (Lisa Hensley, Dating the Enemy) calls him. Johnny was famous for Pacem in terris, an encyclical inveighing against nuclear proliferation, and for calling the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II wasn’t finished and implemented until the papacy of Johnny’s successor, but it would bring about major changes in the church. Catherine and I were both raised in the church, but all the church services of her childhood were in Latin. Nowadays the pope is another reformer in the spirit of our Johnny, and activists within the church call (optimistically) for female priests and a wholehearted embrace of gay marriage, both ideas that would cause the stately senior nuns of 1963 Sydney to burst into unholy fire. It can be hard to keep your eye on the future in a religious tradition steeped in ancient ritual—when Catherine and her colleagues are shrouded in black veils and crowns of thorns during their initiation, they look like they have more in common with moondrunk pagans than with respectable Sunday churchgoers. Recent movies like Spotlight, Philomena and Calvary do a good job dragging the Roman Catholic Church to hell and back, and Brides is much more even-handed—Catherine and the other nuns are for the most part sympathetic, though their faith is not always easily comprehensible. That’s not to say that the Church as an institution comes off well, even if no one gets molested. It’s just as infected by sexual repulsion and mindless embrace of authority as always. Catherine is eventually sent off to the provinces to get her away from Paul and their “particular relationship.” She’s also forced to burn her private journals after setting off the Independent Thought Alarm one too many times.
  • Catherine. So why does she put up with this shit? She’s clearly too smart to be mouthing empty catechisms, even if older nuns like Sister Attracta (Melissa Jaffer, Mad Max: Fury Road) offer encouraging, laid-back role model vibes in contrast to Sister Agnes’ (Brenda Fricker, My Left Foot) tight-assed bitter old martinet. Before Sister Catherine was Sister Catherine, she was Diane, a dewy-eyed girl fresh out of a lengthy college career and ready to earn her MRS degree. After her father dies, she undergoes some weird religious epiphany. It’s  worth taking a moment here to praise the director (Ken Cameron, The Umbrella Woman) for conveying something as abstract as a religious epiphany in a legible if abstract and impressionistic manner. He even managed to resist using hokey period special effects! Anyway, it’s compelling to watch Catherine strive to reconcile her liberal upbringing with the decidedly staid and orderly intellectual environment where she finds herself. She may be an inquisitive free-thinker, but she doesn’t have a mean-spirited or sarcastic bone in her body. She earnestly engages a peevish Agnes on the topic of nonsensical medieval thought experiments. She knows Paul isn’t on her intellectual level, but she never lets Paul see this for a moment; we get the sense that Paul would be interested in taking the relationship deeper into the heart of particularity, and it seems Catherine is inclined to discourage this, subtly, gently, so as not to call attention to it or hurt Paul’s feelings. Here is where I wish that we could see an alternate reality where the two young women aren’t separated and this issue eventually comes to a head, but I’m sure Catherine would be a goddamned class act about it. 

Final Episode Judgment: 10/10. Television execs are historically timid about touching on anything having to do with religion or spirituality. It’s a shame, but that scarcity creates openings for fresh stories that offer probing explorations of deep and rich thematic material. This episode is well-acted, well-written and well-shot. Based on the strength of this premiere, Brides would have made an excellent TV series. It could have been the Mad Men of Catholicism. Instead, it was a miniseries before its time plunged into inky black obscurity. It’s moments like this where I feel vindicated by my drive to unearth the pearls and truffles of forgotten TV (along with a lot of stinking refuse.)

NEXT TIME: I review the blissfully Tom-Cruise-free Mission Impossible (1966).

Case Study 81: Brides of Christ, Episode 1–“Diane”

Case Study 80: Family Ties, Episode 30–“Batter Up”

Original Airdate: November 30th, 1983 on NBC

The family sitcom is the last refuge of the scoundrel of TV mediocrity. If you have airtime to fill and no interesting ideas to fill it with, give us cute kids, some tame humor and the barest shred of novelty. It’s hard to enjoy the anodyne domestic stories of years gone by in a post-Simpsons world, but it does make it easier to understand why that show made such a splash and why Married With Children might have seemed like a breath of fresh air. Of course, everything old is new again. At this point, arch depictions of dysfunction seething beneath conformity are boring (F is for Family, anyone?) and an old-fashioned goofy family sitcom like Modern Family has a wheelbarrow full of Emmys, despite not really being as modern as all that. Which is all well and good: if it’s funny, it doesn’t need to be groundbreaking. Family Ties is self-evidently not groundbreaking. It centers around the political conflict between liberal parents and a conservative son, an empty mirror image of the much more interesting All in the Family. But is it funny? Well-l-l-l….

Strengths

  • Hilarious 80s fashion. Nothing says style like a fuschia vest over a dark purple sweater, worn with panache by the inestimable Tina Yothers as eleven-year-old Jennifer. Meanwhile, teenage Mallory (Justine Bateman) is headed off to school in inexplicable Laura Ingalls Wilder cosplay. And I realize that annoying neighbor Arlene (Tanya Fenmore, My Stepmother is an Alien) is supposed to be nerdy, but all the lace ruffles are a touch extra even for her.
  • One mildly amusing line. Laughs and even smiles are few and far between in this joyless “comedy,” but there was one tiny moment. Loathsome teenage Republican Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox, Back to the Future) is coaching Jennifer’s softball team with a decidedly Malthusian philosophy. All of the other girls start to back out so as not to have to deal with him, and we hear one side of his phone conversation with a truculent mom. I’ll pause here to say that a one-sided phone conversation is always an easy way to get a laugh. Some of the most potent comedy asks us to rely on our imagination of offscreen reactions and events. We see him saying, “Ms. Scofield, be reasonable…this is the championship game and we’re going to forfeit without Charlotte…We can give her her medication between innings!”

 

Weaknesses

  • Terrible acting. There’s a reason most of these people didn’t have much of a career outside this show. Fox was the breakout star, and he’s more or less inoffensive here, if a bit whiny. This episode is really a showcase for Jennifer, and Yothers handles herself with surprising competence, though we’re still grading on the child actor curve. Everyone else might as well be extras at a midwestern dinner theatre. Thankfully, the worst-in-show award goes to someone who’s not a part of the main cast: Marc Price as Skippy, Arlene’s equally annoying older brother.
  • Learning a valuable lesson. One thing I’ve learned writing this blog is that while overcooked melodrama is tedious, nothing is as intolerable as bad comedy. I was wrong. There is one thing more intolerable: bad moralistic comedy. I realize that 20th-century family sitcoms are notorious for this, but it’s very hard to do well. It takes someone like Norman Lear to be able to take an ethical dilemma and make it funny as well as thought-provoking. Needless to say, he didn’t work for Family Ties. In tonight’s episode, we learn that while winning is nice, it’s not worth damaging your friendships or brutalizing little girls. Well, except that…
  • There are no real consequences. Guess what happens at the end of this trifling nonsense? It looked like Alex wouldn’t have enough players to field a team due to his and Jennifer’s sociopath-adjacent behavior. Then Arlene and the girls on the team forgive them and they all run off to play in the game after all. What the hell was the point of all this if the Keatons get away with their bullshit anyway after a few half-hearted apologies?
  • Ableist humor. You know what this episode needed? A throwaway joke about “midget kickboxing.” Okay, so this might be unfairly applying the political standards of 2017 to 1983, but either way it’s not funny. Find a way to make your shitty jokes without mocking people because of their medical conditions or don’t make them at all. I mean, they might as well have not made any jokes at all judging by the humor of the end product.
  • Sexual harassment. Again with this bullshit. Hey comedy writers: stop sending the message that refusing to take no for an answer is funny or charming or endearing. It’s creepy and women have to deal with this behavior constantly. Part of the reason for that? Media that makes it seem innocent and acceptable. Honestly, I feel bad for Mallory! She exhibits remarkable restraint by ignoring Skippy instead of telling him to go furtively masturbate in his mother’s closet, and Elyse (Meredith Baxter) still chides her for being rude. Pretty sure that Skippy is the rude one, since he’s practically dry-humping the furniture. Quit perpetuating patriarchal hegemony, Elyse.

Final Episode Judgment: 0/10. Hey, it turns out the things I said were strengths were kind of backhanded compliments at best! Would you look at that.

NEXT TIME: I review Brides of Christ, an Australian miniseries about nuns possibly having fun in the 1960s. It’s not a comedy, but it’s still probably funnier than this horseshit.

Case Study 80: Family Ties, Episode 30–“Batter Up”

Case Study 79: Lou Grant, Episode 27–“Murder”

Original Airdate: October 30th, 1978 on CBS

You may not care that much about TV shows from the seventies, but if you were asked to name three, there’s a good chance you’d say All in the Family, M*A*S*H and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary won a staggering 29 Emmys. It coronated the title actress as comedy royalty. It eventually gave us 30 Rock. It also generated a flock of spinoffs rivaled only by Norman Lear, Happy Days and Star Trek. Rhoda made a modest splash in the sitcom world—it even inspired an inexplicable animated pilot about Carlton the doorman, as voiced by the inimitable Lorenzo Music—but the most successful Mary spinoff was actually an hour-long drama. Mary’s gruff boss, Lou Grant (Ed Asner), evidently made the move from Minneapolis to Los Angeles and left TV behind for a good old-fashioned newsroom. The end result was Lou Grant, a socially conscious melodrama that proved to be another successful entry in James L. Brooks’ resume. Is it worth your time in 2017? Of course not. But it wouldn’t be any fun to leave it at that, would it?

Strengths

  • Politically engaged. I’m always going to like anything that challenges conventional wisdom about TV being vapid and pointless, especially old-school Silver Age fare like this. Lou was a valuable precursor to more memorably woke dramas like St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues, which were also productions of MTM Enterprises (guess what the MTM stands for). Each episode features the intrepid reporters of the LA Tribune wading into a hot topic ripped from the headlines of Time magazine. This episode confronts an issue that we’re still lamenting nearly 40 years later—the disparities in the way the media treats white crime victims and victims of color. I recently saw two salient examples of this phenomenon. I live in a part of the city that’s mostly non-white and afflicted by violent crimes. A few weeks ago, someone was stabbed to death and left to die in the street. There were two paragraphs about this in the newspaper. I don’t know for sure that this person wasn’t white, but I have absolutely no way of knowing for sure since the paper didn’t even print his name. A few weeks before that, I saw Jon-Benet Ramsey on the cover of Globe in line at the supermarket. In June of 2017. These two victims lived maybe 30 miles from one another, but they might as well be on separate planets. This episode is all about the same issue—a young black mother gets senselessly murdered the same day that some old dowager gets robbed, and our heroine Billie Newman (Linda Kelsey) has to fight tooth and nail to get the Tribune to devote any resources to covering the murder. The news media landscape in 2017 would be unrecognizable to the folks at the Tribune, but chances are they’d find modern-day media racism all too familiar.
  • Underused institutional setting. Why aren’t there more TV shows about the media? Clearly the issues are still relevant and it’s an unfamiliar setting for most people. Is it because The Newsroom has irretrievably poisoned the well? That’s probably why, isn’t it? God, that show sucked out loud. (I was about to write a sentence calling Aaron Sorkin out as one of the biggest hacks in television, but there are just so many hacks that my sentence would have buckled under the weight of qualifiers.) Nevertheless, one of the more interesting things that TV dramas can do is to pull back the curtain on the institutions that drive our society. It’s what made The Wire a masterpiece and it’s why I’ll gladly sit still for Frederick Wiseman’s 3-hour-long documentaries. Lou offers some of these pleasures. We get to see editorial meetings about what’ll make it on the front page. We see Lou giving guidance to young reporters. It’s not Spotlight, but it’ll do, I suppose.

Weaknesses

  • Over-the-top direction. We open on the gruesome murder of Marla Evans (Gail Cameron, Another You). Of course, we’re given a little slice of Marla’s life in the minutes before the murder in order to humanize her and emphasize the terrible tragedy of her death, and that’s all well and good, if a little obvious. The thing is, when it comes to larger-than-life drama, a little goes a long way and the director would be well-advised to use a light touch. The director, one Mel Damski (Yellowbeard), does not use a light touch. Instead, there’s a soaring soundtrack worthy of Michael Bay and sweeping, erratic camera movements. It’s meant to be thrilling. Instead, it’s cheesy melodrama.
  • Maudlin. Billie’s trying to convince the cops to let her examine the bloody crime scene when Marla’s seven-year-old daughter, Lisa (Alene Wilson, Battered) comes skipping down the hallway, singing a merry little song. The cop stops the little girl from going into the apartment, picks her up and carries her away. She cries out for her mother. Is this really necessary? Do we really have to attend Marla’s funeral? If we do, do we have to spend five minutes there? We get it. The lady’s dead. It’s sad. It doesn’t make it more sad if you turn it into a tragic anecdote from “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” 
  • A thirsty eagerness to call attention to moderate character work. So the whole deal with Lou Grant as a character is that he seems like a crotchety old man but he’s got a heart of gold. His gruff mannerisms keep people at arm’s length but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t care. It’s kind of a cliche, but it is what it is. So we get a scene where Lou seems like he’s discouraging Billie, but he’s really motivating her to try harder to write a compelling article about Marla. It was reasonably deft and I would have praised it, except it’s immediately followed by Art Donovan (Jack Bannon) coming up to Lou and congratulating him on understanding human psychology while still seeming like an old curmudgeon. For chrissakes! Just let the moment breathe! We get it! Why do the writers of Lou Grant think the audience are a bunch of fucking idiots?
  • Too much time spent with the dowager. If this episode of Lou has one fatal flaw, it’s a total lack of subtlety, but if it has a second fatal flaw it would be that there’s not enough of a story here. Everyone wants a happy ending, so Billie has to come up with a great article for the paper, and sure, that means spending some time in the community and getting to know Marla’s milieu. So far, so good. Then we spend an eternity at her funeral, which, teary but okay, I guess. Then Billie helps catch the murderer. Okay, pretty unrealistic, but whatever, we’ve all learned a valuable lesson about how every human life deserves the full consideration we give to blonde children and how it’s silly to spend all our time focusing on cute old white ladies foiling a robbery attempt. So what happens next? Oh, of course the show spends more time focusing on the cute old white lady. There’s this whole b-plot about hotshot young reporter Joe Rossi (Robert Walden, All The President’s Men) covering the hell out of the robbery story. He also helps catch the robbers. Why does Lou Grant think all reporters also fight crime?

Final Episode Judgment: 4/10. It’s definitely not the nadir of hour-long dramas, but it just can’t compete in a world where there’s something light years better airing for the first time somewhere on TV every night.

NEXT TIME: I continue to explore alleged TV classics as I review Family Ties!

Case Study 79: Lou Grant, Episode 27–“Murder”

Case Study 78: Shaun the Sheep, Episode 143–“Wanted”

Original Airdate: November 9th, 2016 on CBBC

Aardman Animations had been cranking out stop-motion claymation cartoons since the 1970s—you may recognize their work with Peter Gabriel—but they only really hit the big time when director Nick Park’s short film Creature Comforts won an Oscar. That same year saw the debut of A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit at the Bristol Animation Festival. This was the beginning of a franchise of lucrative and beloved Wallace and Gromit cartoons, including a feature-length film in 2005. Aardman also brought us the classic kids movie Chicken Run, and, yes, a movie based on Shaun the Sheep. Shaun first appeared in A Close Shave, a Wallace and Gromit adventure that won an Oscar of its own in 1996. Aardman is like the Pixar of Plasticine, except they’ve been out in these streets for a hell of a lot longer than John Lasseter and company. Since 2007, Aardman’s been cranking out scads of 7-minute cartoons about Shaun for the BBC’s children’s programming channel. How does it compare to other animated short subjects?

Strengths

  • Animation style. Okay, the aesthetics haven’t changed much since Comforts, but the animation looks better than ever. One of these shorts entails more than 10,000 individual frames, which means hours and hours of painstaking work, and the folks at Aardman didn’t skimp on the details. You can never see the strings here and it’s surprisingly easy to disappear into the pastoral world of Shaun despite the admittedly distinctive array of bulbous heads, thick brows, gapped teeth and ridiculously huge noses on dogs.
  • Cute. So anything with dogs and other domestic animals gets brownie points from me right out of the gate, but this is one of those purportedly comic affairs where the comedy comes from the most gentle of observations and decidedly sedate hijinks. This short involves an escaped convict posing as a sheep to avoid scrutiny from the police. He walks on all fours and uses pilfered socks to imitate the black ears of a sheep and it looks pretty silly. A small child might find the whole enterprise intrinsically amusing for this reason.
  • Dialogue-free. It’s an interesting move by the people at Aardman to have each episode of Shaun offer a soundtrack with music, sound effects and absolutely no talking. Sure, there’s baa-ing, and barking, and grunting, all of which makes perfect sense if the protagonists are sheep and dogs. Strangely, even the humans don’t speak, though they emote in a kind of nonsense language akin to the dialogue voiced by the characters in The Sims. This makes the show more accessible for international audiences or for pre-verbal children, and it’s a welcome change of pace from the hackneyed or too-clever-by-half dialogue that pours out of lesser children’s fare. Of course, there are trade-offs…

Weaknesses

  • Insubstantial, even for something seven minutes long. There’s not a lot happening here in terms of story. A jailbird escapes to the farm, poses as a sheep and gives himself up when he realizes that the nameless farmer might eventually kill him for food. Of course, the farmer isn’t going to kill anyone—I feel fairly confident that this is the kind of farm where sheep are only used for wool—but the convict doesn’t know that. You could get a lot of comedy and story out in seven minutes, but it looks like Shaun doesn’t have that kind of stamina 143 episodes in, if it ever did.

Final Episode Judgment: 7/10. It’s light-hearted, sweet and very hard to dislike, but it’s also not very memorable and it doesn’t have much of the distinctive wit that made Comforts and Wallace & Gromit so successful.

NEXT TIME: Did you know that The Mary Tyler Moore Show had three separate spin-offs? Did you know that these include a wildly successful drama starring Ed Asner, pictured here trapped deep inside the uncanny valley? That’s right, baby—come back later for Lou Grant! It won 13 Emmys!

Case Study 78: Shaun the Sheep, Episode 143–“Wanted”

Case Study 77: Torchwood, Episode 30–“Children of Earth: Day Four”

Original Airdate: July 9th, 2009 on BBC One

Back in 2005, Russell T. Davies helped revive the hibernating Doctor Who franchise with a reboot that made many common-sense changes, like switching to film over videotape and increasing episode length to the 50 minutes that are standard for a TV drama. He also added story structures and a sense of humor that revealed he had been closely studying Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Nearly 11 million people watched the debut, and now Doctor fans have taken over every last nook and cranny of the internet. Davies is a man so smutty that he named a trio of miniseries after the gradations on a penile hardness scale, so of course he jumped at the chance to make an adults only Doctor spinoff.* Some letters were rearranged and some clues were dropped in episodes of Doctor and Torchwood was born. For its third season, Torchwood was a five-episode series called “Children of Earth.” I rewatched all five for this review, as well as a few extra episodes of Torchwood and Doctor for good measure.

Strengths

  • The 456. “Children” is a first contact story, and it’s always fun to see how any given creative team conceptualizes that moment when humans realize they’re not alone in the universe. Of course, that moment had already come and gone for the Whoniverse, but this season chronicles first contact with a different alien species. Except it’s technically the second contact, but most people don’t realize that. Anyway, the litmus test here is whether or not the aliens are cool, original and intimidating, and the 456 are definitely all three. They demand that British civil servants secretly construct a chamber full of various exciting toxic gases, and then they beam down an ambassador that’s really more of a thrashing, tentacled, vomiting monster. It also yells a lot. And then come to find out that they slowly suck minerals and resources out of terrified, living human children to use as recreational drugs. It kinda blows ALF out of the water.
  • Provocative ethical problems. So of course the aliens want more delicious children. But they’re not unreasonable—they only want 10% of all human children. Of course, if they don’t get their fix they’ll use unimaginably powerful alien technology to destroy all life on Earth. This raises several issues. Do you fork over the kids? The British government feel like they have no other options, although of course our hero Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman, Arrow) eventually finds a solution. The show still doesn’t miss the opportunity to ask whether it’s okay to do something unethical even if you have no other option—we watch as Jack lacerates himself over coughing up an orphanage’s worth of podlings to the baddies back in 1965. Even more revealing are the conversations we watch unfold at the top levels of the British government over which kids get selected. They eventually decide on students from the 10% worst performing schools, because if there’s anything Torchwood loves it’s shitting all over the sunny optimism about human nature on display in Doctor. But how would you choose which kids get turned into alien bath salts? At this point I’m required to remind you for self-promotional reasons that if you want additional discussion of BBC miniseries about aliens invading decades after they first appear to a select group of individuals, you can always read my review of Invasion: Earth.
  • Jack & Ianto. Get poised on your fainting couches, because one of the revolutionary, edgy changes brought about by Torchwood is homosexual PDA! Gloriously pansexual Jack has been sniffing around Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) since season one, and now they’re finally an adorable couple. Straight-laced nerdy secretary Ianto is a plausible and satisfying partner for a charming, cheeky hero like Jack, and a scene where Ianto angstily confronts Jack about his actions in 1965 adds texture to their relationship. Of course, Davies ruins this like the big drama queen that he is, but I’ll hold off on that for now.
  • Extended families. Over the course of “Children of Earth,” we get to see how the alien invasion impacts Jack’s daughter and grandson as well as Ianto’s working class sister. Lesser shows would have tried to squeeze an hour of drama out of an introduction to the family members of the main cast, but Torchwood manages to handle something as momentous as Ianto coming out to his sister elegantly in a single scene. It’s also clever for narrative purposes to include Jack and Ianto’s families so we can get a perspective on the alien crisis from people that aren’t government officials or rogue secret agents.
  • Peter Capaldi. Hey, look who shows up in “Children” as Home Office Permanent Secretary John Frobisher! Of course, Davies and Steven Moffat have a patently nonsensical explanation for why Capaldi showed up in both Torchwood and Doctor in other roles before he became The Doctor, but it’s always a pleasure to see Capaldi regardless of the circumstances. His performance is the highlight in a season that also features stellar turns from Barrowman and Eve Myles, who plays nominal main character Gwen Cooper.
  • Espionage. In the long run it doesn’t matter whatsoever, but much of the season is taken up by a plot thread involving Frobisher’s secretary, Lois Habiba (Cush Jumbo, The Good Wife). Quick sidebar: Davies explained in an interview that they couldn’t get Freema Agyeman to reprise her character Martha Jones in season 3 of Torchwood and that instead viewers get Lois, “who’s kind of the Martha figure,” which is true in that she is a black woman and in no other way. Good one, Russ! Aaaaaanyway, Lois thinks Frobisher’s skullduggery is weird and becomes a mole for Torchwood, complete with high-tech gadgets and clandestine meetings and pointlessly announcing her secret affiliation at the most dramatic possible moment. This kind of stuff is always thrilling to me, even if it’s completely pointless as far as the main plot is concerned.

Weaknesses

  • Dramatics, your honor.** For some reason, Jack brings Ianto with him to have a violent confrontation with the 456 and it ends exactly how you’d expect when you fight evil aliens with secretaries. Hell, we already established that you can’t even fight evil civil servants with secretaries, although Frobisher’s senior secretary (Susan Brown, The Iron Lady) gets the last laugh in episode five. And it’s not just Ianto who dies pointlessly to lend everything a sense of tragic gravitas: Frobisher kills himself and his entire family in the finale! If Davies and Ryan Murphy should ever find a way to collaborate on a TV show, it would inevitably be the world’s most melodramatic exploration of the identity of cis gay white men.  

*Ironically, the new show’s “after dark” sensibility was thwarted later in its run when BBC blanched at all the gay sex that happened in the fourth and final season. They also edited earlier episodes after popular demand from younger viewers.

**If you recognized that this was a Good Wife reference in honor of Cush Jumbo, you win a fabulous prize to be determined later or possibly never!

Final Episode Judgment: 9/10. Torchwood should please all but the most ardent sci-fi haters. I was astonished to find that I liked every episode I watched of Torchwood more than I enjoyed the one Doctor episode I watched for this review, which was “The Christmas Invasion.” And that’s classic Tennant/Piper-era Doctor! HAS THE WORLD GONE TOPSY-TURVY?!

NEXT TIME: We stay in Britain but go plummeting down a couple of age brackets as I review Shaun the Sheep!

Case Study 77: Torchwood, Episode 30–“Children of Earth: Day Four”

Case Study 76: Unforgettable, Episode 18–“The Comeback”

Original Airdate: March 20th, 2012 on CBS

CBS is currently airing 17 dramas. That number alone is despair-inducing for a hard-working blogger trying to write about every remotely memorable television series ever made, but consider the following: a whopping eleven of them are about law enforcement and most of them could be fairly described as crime procedurals. CBS does this because these shows get great ratings. People eat this shit up. NCIS, Criminal Minds, Blue Bloods, and Hawaii Five-O regularly show up in the coveted top 25 broadcast slots for ages 18-49, and when you factor in the fact that older folks apparently can’t get enough of that sweet, sweet crime solving action, even MacGyver squeaks in. But there’s a certain amount of churn involved in keeping America’s La-Z-Boy recliners pointed at everyone’s favorite unblinking eye, and something like Unforgettable can fall through the cracks. In fact, Unforgettable fell through the cracks three times: CBS reluctantly brought the show back for two summer seasons after giving it the axe after season one. They gave up on the show for good after season three. But Unforgettable had an unlikely third life on A&E, who was tentatively trying to develop a slate of original dramas at the time! I guess they figured it’d make a good complement to endless syndicated reruns of Minds. Alas, 13 episodes later A&E decided they had better get out of the original drama business, and now all that’s left is the sleeper hit Bates Motel. And it turns out it’s kind of a shame that Unforgettable got lost in the shuffle, because I really liked this! Which may be a minor miracle unto itself, since AV Club called it the second worst new drama of 2011 on the strength of the pilot!

Strengths

  • Carrie. As soon as you get past Poppy Montgomery’s earnest yet atrocious attempt at an American accent, you realize that our protagonist is more intriguing than your typical TV investigator without being as over the top as the stars of things like Monk and Sherlock. You see, the big gimmick here is that Det. Carrie Wells has hyperthymesia, a condition that gives her extremely detailed autobiographical memory. On the face of it, this is a pretty silly concept, but between The Mentalist, Medium and Limitless, CBS isn’t exactly subscribing to the Dogme 95 manifesto. I could see how this could lead to unevenness—VanDerWerff seems pretty upset about it and the other episode I watched stretched plausibility to a certain extent. But in this episode, everything sings. The writers don’t overplay their hand. Everything Carrie remembers is something she could have actually perceived in the first place and no superpowers or great feats of contrivance are needed. Even with all the attendant foolishness, Carrie still comes across as a real person. Her skills have made her overconfident, but her natural drive pushes her boldly forward, even if the results could be risky, messy or both. It makes sense that when she’s not at work she’d be gambling too much and making unwise romantic decisions. She’s fully conceived and a hell of a lot more likable than that wang on Psych.
  • Meatier story than you usually get from a procedural. This episode plays into an overarching plot line about a mysterious precision sniper locked into a cat and mouse game with Carrie. Sure, actual serial killers are super rare—one percent of all murders at most—but fiction about them remains compelling, especially when we entertain ourselves with the “evil genius” archetype personified by Hannibal Lecter or the dude from Se7en. Here’s another way the show would rather be fun than be realistic. If you want realism, watch Homicide: Life on the Streets or The Wire. I like those shows just as much, but don’t compare them to Unforgettable, because despite superficial similarities they’re doing completely different things. Anyway, I was pleased that this show was willing to turn the sniper killer into a whole plot arc instead of just an easily syndicated case of the week affair all too common in a post-Law & Order world. And they do something interesting with it! In the first episode about the sniper, all the clues point to a crazed loner who turns out to be a patsy for the real puppetmaster. The trail goes cold until Carrie meets a high-powered attorney named Walter Morgan (James Urbaniak, The Venture Bros). Her suspicions gradually become more tangible, but on the way he helps her solve tonight’s primary mystery. Procedurals live and die in the nitty gritty details, and Unforgettable delivers in spades: an up-and-coming tennis prodigy is killed in a staged robbery/homicide. Before long we’re introduced to the corpse of her drug-enthusiast boyfriend from the amateur circuit. Then we learn about a shadowy trust fund that was giving vast sums of money to both the victim and to another tennis player, Ella Zimmer (Sophia Rokhlin, Buffering). The trail leads back to a politically powerful family and their intimidating fixer, Jonathan Hedstrom (Jay O. Sanders, Green Lantern.) It’s plausible and it’s textured enough to be satisfying, and the only thing more scary than a sociopathic killer is a ruthless politician, so the mystery plot is rewarding even though it’s only window dressing for the longer plot arc about the sniper. Pretty graceful, considering the source.
  • Strong/improving supporting performances. Can we just take a minute to acknowledge Urbaniak, though? He absolutely nails Morgan’s creepy intelligence while still making him believable as a smarmy attorney, which is impressive since he’s already demonstrated his ability to make clever if insane cartoons. Apparently Urbaniak has a thing for crime procedurals, too: he’s also shown up on Hawaii, Mentalist, Body of Proof, Medium, NCIS, CSI: Miami, Without a Trace, Numb3rs and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. I don’t know if he improves those shows as much as helps this one, but he’s a definite highlight. Also coming into her own is Jane Curtin (Saturday Night Live), who plays stock wacky medical examiner Joanne Webster. She was introduced halfway through the first season and at first it seemed like she’d be mugging the hell out of some hacky CBS “humor,” but she’s settled down a bit and made the character seem more natural.

Final Episode Judgment: 10/10. This episode really inspired me to think about what a perfect rating means. On the one hand, I’m tempted to reserve this rating for only the very best the medium has to offer–something so artful and instantly canonical that it would give Harold Bloom a wet dream. But by that metric, no episode of Unforgettable could ever possibly qualify, seeing as how it’s a crime procedural with a silly premise designed to fill the hours and entertain the old and infirm. Instead, I’m giving out this rating based on the fact that the show achieves everything it sets out to accomplish with grace and aplomb. It has no real meaningful larger social or thematic message. It doesn’t stir the depths of human emotion. But it was a consummately entertaining 42 minutes with no real flaws. It absolutely made me want to watch more of this dumb show, inconsistent though it may be. As far as I’m concerned, it’s right up there with We Bare Bears.  

One more fun fact before we go that I couldn’t fit anywhere else: the working title for this show was The Rememberer. Listen, the title Unforgettable is a lazy slice of cheese, but The Rememberer sounds like Jenna Maroney’s next project after The Rural Juror. The only excuse is that the show is based on a short story by the long-suffering J. Robert Lennon, and the stupid title is his. That is just a breathtakingly dumb title for a TV show, though.

NEXT TIME: It’s been too long since we’ve discussed any science fiction, and it’s been even longer since I’ve come glancingly close to reviewing Doctor Who, so let’s talk about Torchwood!

Case Study 76: Unforgettable, Episode 18–“The Comeback”

Case Study 75: Kung Fu, Episode 54–“The Thief of Chendo”

Original Airdate: March 29th, 1975 on ABC

The 1970s were a golden age for movies about dudes beating up other dudes. Martial arts movies had been around for a little while, but by the early seventies the action movies pouring out of Hong Kong were getting darker and more serious. Hundreds of movies were dubbed into English and glutted the syndicated airwaves. Soon a superstar emerged—after a lukewarm reception as an actor in LA, the martial arts prodigy Bruce Lee started making movies like The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, breaking Hong Kong box office records one after another. Enter the Dragon, the iconic movie that would rocket him to international stardom, came out in 1973, but Lee wasn’t around to enjoy the dividends of fame: he died mysteriously a month before the movie premiered. If it wasn’t for Lee and the kinds of movies he was making, Kung Fu wouldn’t exist. Hong Kong action movies had proven themselves immensely marketable and a TV series would have been inevitable anyway, but there’s been a long-running debate about whether or not the entire concept for the show was stolen from Lee outright. We know that Lee had shopped around a suspiciously similar idea for a show back in his LA days. Lee was closely considered for the lead role, and according to his widow he certainly felt like his idea had been stolen. Of course, Wikipedia hosts seven paragraphs of claims from a white TV critic that all of the ideas and IP behind Kung Fu were 100% original creations of Ed Spielman and he deserves all the credit he’s been given over the years going back to his time as an earnest young gweilo seeking the “secret knowledge” of kung fu. For any Wikipedia editors out there, I’m pretty sure that whole apologia fails to meet your standards of admissibility, but if you’re defending the honor of white people against charges of racism, then by all means break your own turbonerd rules. WHATEVER. Let’s talk Kung Fu.

Strengths

  • Interesting narrative technique. The premise of Kung Fu is that Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine) flees China after a crime of passion to get in touch with the American side of his ancestry. He finds himself in the Old West and the show is a hybrid of a western and a martial arts drama. I guess we need the western touches to make the people that would rather have been watching Gunsmoke more comfortable. But in tonight’s installment, we don’t spend a second in the American West—the whole thing is a flashback embedded within a flashback. The frame narrative shows young Caine (Radames Pera) wondering what his life will be like when he’s a practicing Shaolin priest. The sage Master Po (Keye Luke) offers a prediction of what that would look like, and this prediction gives us the bulk of the episode. So the story takes place before the main events of the series, but after the young Grasshopper’s apprenticeship, and it may not have even happened. It’s entirely plausible, given the framing, that the entire thing is a hypothetical imagined by Po. All this narrative infrastructure doesn’t really amount to anything, but it’s better than a perfunctory episode where present-day Caine walks into a strange new town, meets a bunch of people he’ll never see again and has an adventure he’ll allegedly never forget.
  • Intriguing plot. Instead, recent-past Caine walks into a strange new town, meets a bunch of people he’ll never see again and has an adventure he’ll allegedly never forget. The particulars are worthwhile, though. Caine is sent from his monastery to attend to a request from the Grand Duke, Shen Ming Tien (John Fujioka, Who Finds a Friend Finds a Treasure.) But oh snap! That Grand Duke is dead, and now there’s a new Grand Duke in town, his shady cousin Chun Yen (James Hong, Kung Fu Panda,) and what do you know—he’s kind of an asshole. But oh snap! Shen Ming Tien isn’t dead, just imprisoned! Caine has to restore the rightful ruler to the throne, armed with nothing more than his wits and his sickening hand-to-hand combat skills! You could do worse, as far as stories go, but the plot can only get you so far.

Weaknesses

  • Yellowface. Ain’t no gettin’ around this one! I can already hear certain people out there complaining that I’m applying today’s modern standards to something that’s more than forty years old, except that argument doesn’t work, because it’s not like we learned our damned lesson about respectful media portrayals of Asians in the first place. Carradine’s performance here doesn’t exactly give us a lot of opportunities to suspend our disbelief—he seems to be borrowing heavily from the old “inscrutable Oriental” stereotype, since his delivery is wooden and emotionless and I know he can do better, dammit.
  • Overall poor writing. Shen Ming Tien was a benevolent ruler, but Chun Yen is more of a robber baron. Is this shown to us? Of course not. It’s told to us. More precisely, it’s told to Caine by the lovable rogue Sing Tao (Harushi). Sing Tao comes bearing a special couriered briefcase full of contrivance. He disguises himself as a priest and fellow traveler of Caine’s to pass through town undetected, but they find themselves summoned to the throne, where they’re told that they’re both going to be imprisoned. Why? Shen Ming Tien’s daughter Mei Ming (Clare Nono, 48 Hrs) is getting forced into an arranged marriage for political reasons, and apparently Chun Yen wants her to have a wedding so extravagant it requires capturing and imprisoning two priests. Of course, the real reason he needs two priests is that the whole plot to take down the evil Duke is a two man job and the writers couldn’t come up with anything remotely more plausible. The improvised scheme continues to evolve in increasingly unlikely directions. Mei Ming’s betrothed is a child, but he’s accompanied by a burly wrestler (Peter Kalua, The Paradise Connection). Caine starts a fight with the wrestler so Sing Tao can steal the key to the jail cells from Chun Yen. He gets away with the key but gets outed as a thief nevertheless. Somehow Chun Yen doesn’t kill them on the spot, because that would be anticlimactic, I guess. Eventually Caine puts things to rights and Shen Ming Tien reassumes the throne, but not before an improbable body switch trick has Mei Ming’s maid Lutien (Jeanne Joe, First Blood) hidden behind a conveniently elaborate veil, and at this point we’ve left reality so far behind that we might as well be in Harry Potter and the Chinese Anachronism.
  • Love at first sight. You know what makes this whole thing even better? Sing Tao and Mei Ming fall deeply in love the first time they lock eyes, just like humans do all the time in the real world poorly scripted melodrama. Once again, this doesn’t pay off in any way except in the form of giving motivation to characters who are already waist deep in a profoundly ridiculous scheme.

Final Episode Judgment: 3/10. If watching crap like this doesn’t make me appreciate the Golden Age of Television in contrast, nothing ever will.

NEXT TIME: I’ll review a show that was cancelled not once, not twice, but thrice! Let’s find out exactly how ironic the title Unforgettable is, shall we? Also, I’ll do my best to get the next post up sometime before June!

Case Study 75: Kung Fu, Episode 54–“The Thief of Chendo”