Case Study 11: Alcatraz, Episode 2–“Ernest Cobb”

Original Airdate: January 16, 2012 on FOX

It would seem that director/writer/producer J.J. Abrams has become pop culture royalty, but I’ve never been particularly impressed with his work. Under review tonight is an offering from his production company. It should be noted that Abrams is not the “creator” of this show–that would be Elizabeth Sarnoff, a veteran of his writers room on Lost–but you wouldn’t know it from reading the press, where it’s often described as “J.J. Abrams’ Alcatraz,” which I suppose is understandable considering that’s what the show’s promotional art says. The thing is, if you look at Abrams’ track record in terms of what he’s produced, his win-loss ratio is terrible: 5 hits (Lost, Alias, Felicity, Fringe, Person Of Interest) to 7 losses (What About Brian, Six Degrees, Undercovers, Alcatraz, Revolution, Almost Human, Believe.) You could argue this is because Abrams isn’t directly involved with the creative process anymore–Felicity, Alias, Lost, Fringe and Undercovers were the only shows on that list where he’s actually billed as “creator.” You see, now J.J. doesn’t have time for TV–he’s off ruining beloved media franchises on the big screen. Alcatraz may be from Abrams’ farm team, but it’s clearly part of the Bad Robot brand. Its failures and successes are driven by the hallmarks of previous Abrams projects, as you’ll see below. I should note that I am far from an Abrams expert–I’ve seen substantial chunks of Lost and Fringe but not the full run of either series, as well as both Star Trek movies and Cloverfield. Most of the comparisons here are based on Lost, since that is a) Abrams’ most famous project b) the one I have seen the most recently and c) Sarnoff’s entry point into the Abrams quicksand. And that brings me to thing that’s most fucked up about the Abrams/Sarnoff elision: If Alcatraz had been a hit, Abrams would get the lion’s share of the glory and Sarnoff would maybe get another gig. As it stands, he’s gotten a chance to shit out 3 more failed TV shows and has received a raft of plum directorial jobs in Hollywood, and she appears to have vanished into a swirling abyss for the last 3 years. (This logic may not map neatly onto Person, but Jonathan Nolan started on second base thanks to his brother. Also, he’s a dude–can’t help but wonder if that’s a factor in the abrupt ending to Sarnoff’s career.) Moving on to the actual show and away from the insider baseball…

Strengths

  • Intriguing (in a cheap sort of way.) As often happens with Abrams properties, the show has an instantly compelling premise with plenty of potential. According to the show, when Alcatraz Federal Prison was closed in 1963, the prisoners weren’t transferred elsewhere as society has been led to believe. Instead, they mysteriously disappeared and have inexplicably been reappearing in the present day without having aged since 1963, which makes this the third show I’ve reviewed in a row to deal with timey-wimey shenanigans. Predictably, given its provenance, the show raises all sorts of questions and sets up all kinds of mysteries which it has no intention whatsoever of resolving any time soon–and, of course, it got cancelled, so percentages on any kind of satisfaction are even further diminished. Let’s briefly review the meat of the story. I’ll note that for the purposes of this review I also watched the pilot, which I felt was probably going to do a better job of introducing me to the characters and the premise than internet research and since I’m reviewing the second episode, it’s far from onerous in terms of catch-up. Our hero is the blandly intrepid Det. Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones.) She’s recovering from the violent death of her partner at the hands of a ruthless perp when she’s assigned to investigate the death of one E.B. Tiller, who turns out to be the former deputy warden at everyone’s favorite iconic island prison. This sends her down a rabbit hole leading to a secret, high-tech Alcatraz mystery lab, helmed by shadowy FBI agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park.) By the end of the pilot, we have two huge Abrams-brand caps lock twists: Madsen had previously believed her grandfather to be a prison guard at Alcatraz, but he’s actually THE GUY WHO KILLED HER PARTNER, and when Hauser catches the bad guys, he’s not taking them to a normal prison, he’s taking them to a SECRET ALCATRAZ REPLICA HE HAS BUILT IN A WOODLAND GLADE.  Mysteries arise–not just the fundamentals like what happened to the prisoners and why they’re reappearing, but also things like what’s the backstory around Madsen’s grandfather? What’s Hauser’s true agenda and long-term plan? Madsen’s uncle and father figure Ray Archer (Robert Forster, Jackie Brown) is a former Alcatraz guard and is cagy and full of undoubtably juicy secrets–what are they? The malevolent prisoner du jour in the pilot is one Jack Sylvane (Jeffrey Pierce, The Tomorrow People) and some of the present-day crimes he commits seem to be incited by some higher power unknown to him–what’s going on there? This tactic is effective–despite the fact that the pilot was distinctly unimpressive, I wanted to see more, because a unique mystery is inherently fascinating to many viewers, including me. But it’s also cheap. If I wanted to come back for a second episode, it wasn’t because of any strong craftsmanship displayed in the pilot–if anything, it was in spite of the shoddy craftsmanship there. Alcatraz didn’t earn its intrigue. But it is intriguing nonetheless.
  • Jorge Garcia. Garcia was one of the highlights of the large and varied cast of Lost, and he’s also been brought up through the Abrams farm system for a star turn in Alcatraz. He plays Dr. Diego Soto, an expert in criminal justice and Civil War history (?) with four published books on the prison. Soto becomes Madsen’s de facto civilian partner. Garcia’s readings bring life and charisma to otherwise leaden dialogue and he gracefully delivers a character arc in the second episode centering on his squeamishness around the actual nuts and bolts of crime solving, what with the victims of violent crimes and their grieving families. He aptly demonstrates that he’s more than just Hurley. I’d be interested to see how he’s faring in his new role on Hawaii Five-O. Not interested enough to watch that show, though. Until I’m forced to, that is.
  • Multifaceted. I had to wrack my brains over this one. This is a problem I suspect I’ll encounter frequently–a situation where a show’s qualities are a double-edged sword, serving as a strength in some ways and a weakness in others. We’ll get to the deficits below. I think a big explanation for why Abrams’ work is so popular is that it can be many things to many people. It defies genre. On the surface, Alcatraz seems like a sci-fi show. It is, but the plot of any given episode is driven by deduction and detection, like any good mystery or police procedural. But these aren’t cerebral mysteries of the kind you might find on PBS–Each episode is also sure to come laden with well-trodden action tropes. The pilot has a scene where Madsen and Soto are sneaking around in secret off-limits rooms in Alcatraz, only to be the victims of a mysterious knockout gas from an unseen source dramatically rolling down the stairs. The second episode culminates in a tense standoff with a maniac wielding a sniper rifle. Theoretically, it can please some of the people all the time.

Weaknesses

  • Evidence that being multifaceted can backfire. In practice, however, Alcatraz fails to live up to the other half of that credo–that is, pleasing all of the people some of the time. Its attempt to serve multiple masters leads to an inability to properly and consistently deliver any of the thrills it sets out to provide. If you want a mystery, you’ll probably itch at the wild contrivances built in through brazenly unrealistic technology–although Bones is dustily clattering into its 11th season, so maybe I’m out of touch with what the average mystery fan wants. At one point Madsen urges Soto to take a photo of the contemporary San Francisco skyline and edit out all the buildings that didn’t exist in 1963–a feat he accomplishes with a few keystrokes. I suppose these sorts of shenanigans are de rigeur in a post-CSI landscape, but for someone who wants to see a mystery solved through research and deduction, it feels extraordinarily cheap and might as well involve wizards and cauldrons. If you want an action adventure with car chases and shootouts and whatnot, you’ll have to sit still long enough to watch Madsen poke around on Google and endure long stretches of increasingly risible Alcatraz-related exposition. If you want sci-fi thrills, you’re in the same boat as you’d be watching Lost–you’re confronted with unexplained phenomena suggestive of science fiction without being given any kind of grounding in internal logic or even basic principles until you put more coins into the bottomless Bad Robot bubblegum machine. Alcatraz will likely scratch enough of your respective genre fiction itches to keep you watching, but it’s just as likely to leave you feeling empty and as if you’ve wasted 45 minutes.
  • Sarah Jones & Sam Neill. Look, Neill is fine in Jurassic, but he’d really have to stink to ruin such a great movie. Alcatraz is no Jurassic. I wonder what the craft services situation on Alcatraz was, because Neill is determined to eat scenery. I’m sure the treatment read like high comedy, but Neill’s over-the-top shady, dramatic asshole routine doesn’t fit the relatively straight-faced approach Alcatraz takes to its ludicrous subject matter. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Jones is a cold fish. Madsen is not very interesting as a character, but with a steady hand on the wheel Jones could have made her come to life. She’s the protagonist and she’s a feisty, fierce, no-bullshit woman in a man’s world. Since she’s underdeveloped, the performance is the tipping point that pushes it one way or another. Jones pushes it decidedly into “another” territory with her wooden delivery and inability to convey basic emotions.

Final Episode Judgment: 6/10. There’s enough going on here to keep you coming back, if you can live with the inevitable disappointment of a cancellation after 13 episodes that surely leaves many threads dangling. I’m especially inclined to look kindly on “Cobb,” since it is a marked improvement over the pilot, particularly when it comes to the script. I’d only give the pilot a 4/10.

NEXT TIME: I take on the juggernaut of today’s police procedural landscape: NCIS!

Case Study 11: Alcatraz, Episode 2–“Ernest Cobb”

Case Study 10: Early Edition, Episode 28–“Downsized”

Original Airdate: October 25th, 1997 on CBS

Early Edition is an intriguing example of a micro-genre I’ll call the “spiritual fantasy.” It involves  protagonists with supernatural abilities that give them unique foresight into the circumstances of their peers, often with an indirect or direct Christian theme. Other examples that leap to mind include Highway to Heaven, Quantum Leap, Touched By An Angel, The Pretender and Joan of Arcadia.

Strengths

  • Naturally suspenseful plot. The premise of Early is that recovering stockbroker Gary Hobson (Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights) starts each morning by mysteriously receiving tomorrow’s copy of the Chicago Sun-Times. Inevitably, tomorrow’s news presents Gary with some crisis that he must resolve. In this episode, the imperiled party is Gary’s former colleague, who has the rather on-the-nose name of Fred Meanwell (Richard Gilliland, Star Kid.) Gary learns that Fred is about to go through some mid-life crisis fueled plastic surgery and will die on the table. This makes for a straightforward and propulsive story—Gary must pull out all the stops to save his friend. A lot of time is spent on the understandably difficult task of establishing a chain of causality. A large chunk of the show hinges on Gary’s assumption that Fred is anxious because his boss Sandy (Barbara Howard, Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter) is laying people off and is transparently prejudiced against younger employees, but this turns out not to be the case. Watching Gary figure things out and then race to save the day makes for compelling television that keeps your attention. That should be a prerequisite for any drama, but sadly that’s not the case, so Early deserves credit here.
  • Thematic cohesiveness. It would be easy for this kind of show to fall into the trap of didactic moralism of the kind displayed in Danny Phantom. (It’s also worth noting that this show handles the issue of a dynamically mutable timeline much more elegantly than Phantom.) Instead, Early takes a social issue and explores underlying causes and factors without coming down too hard on individual actors. It turns out that Fred’s motivation is a desire to remain attractive to his girlfriend Joanne (Romy Windsor, Thief of Hearts.) Joanne doesn’t think this is necessary but initially opts to respect Fred’s decision. By being a big old snoop, Gary finds out that Joanne has a college-age son. It turns out she’s older than she appears because she, too, has had plastic surgery. Joanne regrets her decision. She felt obligated to have the surgery and conceal her status as a mother because it seemed like too much of a romantic and professional liability. Neither Joanne or Fred comes across as malicious or foolish. They seem like good people caught up in a larger crucible. Even Sandy’s superficiality is presented as being symptomatic of larger personality issues, and since she’s a one-off character used only in the service of this storyline, it might be charitable to read her as a personification of a shallow, greedy and blindly ambitious corporate culture. Fred is beset on all sides—the financial pressure of a job market that disproportionately values youth, media bombardment on how age is repellent, young couples in love on every street corner, and a May-December romantic relationship with what he thinks is a ticking clock. Early lays out a comprehensive argument for how society prioritizes vanity at great physical, psychological and economic cost. The show also ties a subplot into the theme: Gary’s roguish sidekick Chuck Fishman (Fisher Stevens, Short Circuit) needs to take publicity photos to promote the restaurant he wants to open with Gary, but is aghast at the version of himself he sees in the final product. This is presented as a comic foil to the serious A-plot, but it’s also meant as an illustration of another way a superficial society preys on the fears and anxieties of people with varying attitudes and outlooks towards life.

Weaknesses

  • Cheesy. Now, I took into consideration the fact that this show is nearly 20 years old, but even in 1997 it would have seemed horrendously dated. Compare it to Friends or ER or what have you and the overbearingly hokey soundtrack, haircuts, outfits and dad humor make this show about as hip as…well, anything airing on CBS, I guess.
  • Unrealistic. Seeing as how this show takes on the task of having its protagonist ~~CHANGE THE FUTURE~~ every week, it may be unfair of me to wince at seeing the boundaries of plausibility stretched to the breaking point time and time again. This is especially important for speculative fiction, since ideally you’d have the grounded realism of the mundane world throwing the fantasy or sci-fi elements into sharp relief. When combined with the 1980s-grade aesthetics on display, Early’s slippery grasp on reality breaks whatever spell it’s trying to cast. Time and time again Gary and Chuck wander into the stock brokerage where they used to work, into the plastic surgeon’s office and into the hospital with no one stopping them. One set piece involves Gary using a bit of “I know the future” insider trading to make Chuck look good at work, and when Sandy puts Chuck on the hot seat about how exactly that happened, Gary effectively communicates with him through mime and stage whisper from 100 feet away, regardless of the fact that there’s no way he’d be able to hear their conversation. The climax features Chuck trying to buy time by dressing up as a surgeon, wheeling Fred around the hospital and badly attempting to establish an air of authority when questioned by staff. At least the show has the decency to have Chuck faced with criminal charges for this horseshit.
  • Meddling-intensive. This is an inherent weakness of the spiritual fantasy micro-genre, and really of any narrative that places a lot of weight on moral judgments. I think this is mostly due to the demands of narrative. A story about someone who disagrees with a life choice made by someone else but decides to keep their counsel because grown-ass adults can make their own decisions and no one asked them and it’s none of their goddamned business doesn’t exactly have that textured conflict viewers have come to expect. The circumstances created by Early give Gary the unassailable moral high ground—in a normal world, Joanne would be absolutely right to tell him that Fred can make his own decisions about his body and Gary should butt the hell out. But the deck has been stacked. This unintentionally feeds into a particularly annoying strain of Christianity that insists on correcting the moral failings and realigning the religious views of other people, in lieu of removing the beams from our own eyes and so forth.

Final Episode Judgment: 5/10. Early makes for a reasonably light-hearted and entertaining hour of television, but it’s by no means essential.
NEXT TIME: Alcatraz!

Case Study 10: Early Edition, Episode 28–“Downsized”

Case Study 9: Danny Phantom, Episode 28-29–“The Ultimate Enemy”

Original Airdate: September 16th, 2005 on Nickelodeon

Danny Phantom is the second Nickelodeon original animated series or “Nicktoon” from Butch Hartman, the creator of the wildly successful The Fairly OddParents as well as the more recent T.U.F.F. Puppy, which is still airing new episodes albeit in the deep cable ghetto of the Nicktoons network. During its three season tenure Phantom enjoyed four hour-long double episodes—this was the second.

Strengths

  • Interesting concept. This show takes place in a universe where intrusions into everyday life by visible ghosts from another dimension are a known quantity, if not necessarily a commonplace occurrence for the average person. The otherwise unremarkable Danny Fenton (David Kaufman) is destined to become intimately familiar with ghosts, however. His parents Jack (Rob Paulsen, Animaniacs) and Maddie (Kath Soucie, Rugrats) are flat-footed investigators of the paranormal, and when Danny finds their disused portal to the ghost dimension he manages to activate it. This results in his transformation into a half-human half-ghost entity that can change forms at will. The show gets grist for the plot mill from Danny’s attempts to keep the Ghost Zone at bay. This episode adds the additional complication of time travel, introducing Clockwork (David Carradine, Kill Bill) an immortal, omnipotent ghost ally tasked with saving the human world from a timeline ending in destruction. So far, so good—this is a unique premise with plenty of potential.
  • Unique visual style. While the character modeling and the general style of animation on display is strongly reminiscent of Fairly, the ghosts and the Ghost Zone are distinctive and appealing. In general the show is a pleasure to look at and excels at using the powers of its medium to go above and beyond in terms of presentation. Clockwork’s animation is particularly choice as he regularly vacillates between three different life stages to reflect the fluidity of time that permeates the nature of his character. It’s just really well thought-out. As we go on you’ll find out that I found this show profoundly disappointing, but the animators and artists have nothing to do with that.
  • Deep worldbuilding. Much of this episode relies on Danny’s interactions with his extensive rogue’s gallery and the deployment of various ghost hunting/interfacing gadgets designed by the Fentons. This broad and richly developed world is the show’s most rousing success when it comes to imitating the thrills of superhero comic books. It’s the kind of thing that makes a fan want to come back again and again—the sense that all the pieces matter and that the show’s universe lives and breathes and doesn’t just reset or disappear in between episodes. It’s the difference between a static world and a dynamic one and I’m glad Phantom recognizes the importance.
  • David Carradine. In a show with otherwise unremarkable vocal performances, Carradine steals the show. Through nothing but the magic of his performance he lends a nuanced, brooding gravitas to a time-travelling ghost. A great actor can elevate the most tepid writing or the most ludicrous premise.

Weaknesses

  • Dreadfully unfunny. Oh, man. This show is peppered with wretched attempts at humor at every junction—I think they’re going for a Spiderman thing where the mild-mannered teen protagonist turns into Don Rickles when he takes the form of his more confident alter ego, as Danny is constantly trying to banter with his foes. Here it mostly takes the form of uninspired time puns, which get beat into the ground in various permutations. “I guess I’m going to have to give you a TIME OUT!” Fozzie the Bear has better material than this. It’s not that I don’t want the show to have a sense of humor, but in the words of Jack Donaghy, “Don’t start unless you’ve got something.” The overall sense of hackiness is compounded by the way the show handles Danny’s principal, Mr. Lancer (Ron Perlman, Hellboy.) Apparently one of Lancer’s character traits is that he just exclaims the name of media properties that are tangentially related to the matter at hand. I’ll give you an example. In this episode, the safety of Danny’s loved ones (and Lancer) is imperiled by an explosion caused by the overheating of a volatile special sauce analogue at the local McDonald’s analogue, which is called “Nasty Burger.” (Satire! Do you get it!?! Fast food is gross!) When Danny uses a small amount of a to-hand serving of the sauce as a weapon in a fight against the ghost Box Lunch (Soucie) the ensuing explosion starts the boiler overheating process and causes cataclysmic property damage. Lancer is eating lunch at the franchise. When the shit hits the fan, Lancer busts out with “Fast Food Nation!” Get it?! Because that’s a thing?! I mean, where’s the fucking joke? Family Guy is often used as an example of a widely maligned trend in comedy where a propos of nothing some pop culture artifact is injected with “edgy” humor—a Sesame Street/Homicide: Life on the Street crossover, or a reimagining of the Dick Van Dyke Show opening credits where Rob’s trip over the ottoman results in a series of increasingly violent blunders. The criticism is that this is a lazy grab at cheap laughs based on the fact that the audience is pleased with itself for recognizing a parody of the Van Dyke opener and mildly scandalized by a twist. (Being overly pleased with yourself and empty grabs at falsely edgy comedy is pretty much the Family M.O. in a nutshell.) But this is a step beyond—it’s just randomly throwing out the names of various referents. I didn’t realize it was possible to be this lazy with pop culture references in comedy. Kids may not get or appreciate reference-based comedy, especially when it’s this profoundly unfunny, but they do enjoy comedy that stems organically from who the characters are. A great ensemble creates a zany and exciting environment for kids to get invested in. But transparently out-of-character comedy squanders that potential. There’s more. At one point Danny’s friends, Sam (Gray Delisle, 2006’s The Replacements) and Tucker (Ricky D’Shon Collins, Recess) are saved from certain death by hasty removal of the time medallions they’re wearing. Tucker marvels that Sam was able to remove the medallions in time, and Sam “jokes” that she “doesn’t accessorize well.” Despite the fact that this is an incredibly tepid excuse for witty banter, Sam is visibly wearing at least four different accessories when she says this. If you insist on barraging me with dreadful “humor,” can we at least have it not be visibly out of character? The jokes are also brazenly out of touch—at one point the allegedly tech-savvy Tucker’s PDA plays a role in things, because he is a fortysomething middle manager from 2001. Or so I surmise. Another joke is made about “bling.” Part of why this is so frustrating is that occasionally, the show will come tantalizingly close to an actual risible moment and then hammishly oversell it. I’m thinking specifically of the moment right at the end of the episode where Danny and his sister Jazz (Colleen O’Shaughnessey, The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes) are having a conversation about how she’s known about Danny’s secret identity for some time. Danny gets called away to fight a giant tentacled slime monster, and Jazz gets soaked with green goo, with just her eyes and her lips visible in inimitable cartoon fashion. It’s a hilarious visual and a great undercut to a sappy moment—and then they ruin it by having her say “This is going to take some getting used to!” What does that add?
  • Overbearing soundtrack. In an action-oriented cartoon, I sort of expect the musical side of the soundtrack to be obnoxious, and indeed it was, but within fairly acceptable levels. The really grating thing here is the over-the-top SFX work. The show has great animation and the character modelling is very expressive. This show does absolutely nothing in a subtle fashion, which shoots it in the foot over and over again. It would hurt absolutely no one to just have the characters have visibly dismayed or amused or suspicious facial and physical reactions to things. We don’t need the sound of their eyebrows shooting up. It comes across as condescending, and, again, adds nothing. The dramatic music during fights and stuff is typical and unobtrusive, but we also don’t need wacky little stings after every flaccid attempt at comedy. You’re not helping, SFX. It’s never going to be funny.
  • Convoluted plot. Oh sweet Jesus. This is going to take some time. So let me summarize the story here as briefly as I can. Ten years into the future of Danny’s home of Amity Park, the world is a grim dystopia. Amity Park is now behind a force field and the surrounding land is grey and barren for as far as the eye can see. In this timeline, the adult Danny Phantom (Eric Roberts, The Expendables) is a tyrant terrorizing the residents of Amity Park and is presumably responsible for the current state of the rest of the world. Dark Danny breaches the forcefield, and Clockwork is tasked with destroying present-day Danny to prevent this from ever becoming a problem. Back in the present, Danny and friends are notified by Lancer that they’ll soon be forced to take a challenging and all-important standardized test. Danny is nervous about the test and very unsure about his chances at success. Clockwork’s first attempt on Danny’s life involves dispatching Box Lunch. Danny does battle with her at the Nasty Burger, deploying the previously mentioned improvised condiment explosion. During the explosion he turns into his intangible form to avoid getting hurt by flying debris and manages to pass through Lancer’s briefcase, where the test’s answers are concealed. Now in possession of the test’s answer key, Danny considers cheating and discusses it with his friends at school. Lancer overhears and is persuaded not to take immediate action by Jazz. Clockwork sends a second ghost to attack Danny, one Skulltech 9.9 (Paulsen & Kevin Michael Richardson, The Cleveland Show.) Skulltech traps Danny in a giant metal claw, but is presently incapacitated when Tucker uses his PDA to hack Skulltech’s operating systems. As Tucker and Sam struggle to free Danny from the claw, Skulltech’s mysterious time amulet falls from his neck, transporting them to what I guess is supposed to be Clockwork’s base of operations. Clockwork attacks them and they escape through a portal to the future. There, Dark Danny attacks the trio, and as mentioned above Sam & Tucker manage to escape by removing the time medallions they were wearing after taking them from Clockwork’s lair. Meanwhile, Dark Danny takes regular Danny’s time medallion, ties him up with magic ropes or some shit and banishes him to the Ghost Zone. Dark Danny disguises himself as regular Danny and travels back in time to regular Danny’s timeline. In the Ghost Zone Danny is confronted by his rogue’s gallery, all of whom have been fucked up in one way or another by Dark Danny’s misdeeds and want revenge. Dark Danny and Jazz run into each other and because of Reasons Dark Danny reveals that a) he is in fact not the Danny that Jazz knows and loves but an evil, all-powerful super-Danny from the future and b) that Danny’s only hope of returning to the present is by going through his archenemy Vlad Masters (Martin Mull, Hollywood Squares.) Jazz conveys this information via tying a note to a Fenton family gadget keyed to Danny’s ectoplasmic signature or whatever the fuck and throws it into her local ghost portal with the hope that it finds Danny in the future Ghost Zone. Danny defeats the vengeful ghosts with a powerful, newly developed technique known as the Ghostly Wail, a weapon that Dark Danny has been using liberally. Meanwhile, Dark Danny proceeds to cheat on the test that will eventually lead to the fiery death of the Fentons, Sam, Tucker and Lancer in that boiler explosion, despite Jazz’s attempts to stop him with more Fenton gadgets. Regular Danny gets Jazz’s note and tracks down future Vlad, who is a shell of his former dastardly self and who delivers an exposition dump about how when everyone Dark Danny loved got violently killed he broke down psychologically and demanded that Vlad excise his human portion, eventually becoming an evil, all-power ghost bent on destroying the world. Now certain that (Dark) Danny cheated on the test, Lancer summons Dark Danny and his parents to the Nasty Burger for…Reasons, where they are promptly joined by Sam & Tucker, who are rushing to warn the adults about the imminent boiler explosion. Jazz shows up with Fenton gadgets and reveals Dark Danny’s identity. Regular Danny shows up to do battle. Dark Danny prolongs the battle as long as possible but ultimately regular Danny uses a Ghostly Wail and incapacitates Dark Danny long enough to put him into a secure Fenton ghost thermos. But it’s too late—the boiler explodes anyway. The deus ex machina that prevents the next season and a half of Danny Phantom from being super-dark is Clockwork, who shows up at the last minute, makes a dumb speech about how time isn’t a parade, and the upshot is that he’s decided since he can’t seem to outright kill Danny he might as well just reverse time to the tipping point of Danny cheating on the test. He does that, Danny doesn’t cheat, the world is saved. If I read all that shit aloud to you it would take about 6 minutes. A plot summary should never take 6 goddamned minutes. And this is far from a satisfying plot! Any story involving time travel is going to involve a certain amount of convolution, which is why it must be done extremely carefully. A show for 8 year olds shouldn’t be on the level of Primer, for fuck’s sake. We also spend a huge amount of time dicking around with two unrelated ghost battles and the rogues in the Ghost Zone to boot, as well as listening to a bunch of exposition in a third location from yet another character. That’s time we could spend actually getting at the emotional cores of the story. There are two. 1) We learn that Danny’s misdeed leads to a chain of events that essentially destroys his life and 2) he subsequently becomes monstrously powerful and evil. The show spends plenty of time establishing the latter—too much time. The opening scene makes it obvious that Dark Danny is wreaking hell. Danny and his friends see direct evidence of this in Clockwork’s lair. Clockwork tells them. Dark Danny tells them. The fucked-up rogues in the Ghost Zone convey this. Vlad tells Danny. Dark Danny tells Jazz. Great. Pick two of those, maybe. And spend the rest of the time here earning the first plot point. We’re never given any explanation of how the cheating would have led to the boiler explosion in the first place. How would Danny have gotten the answers and destabilized the boiler in the first place if Clockwork hadn’t sent Box Lunch to attack him? Why would Jazz, Tucker and Sam have been at the inexplicable parent/teacher conference at the burger place? This chain of events only makes sense when Clockwork intervenes, which presumably he didn’t do the first time around, because why would he deliberately be trying to create a chain of events resulting in Dark Danny? Since none of this makes any fucking sense, it doesn’t put any power into what should be a very powerful revelation—that Danny inadvertently destroys everything he loves. This could have been salvaged, and instead it’s a particularly coiled hot brown mess.
  • Cheap moralism. For that matter, it’s kind of gross that this decision to cheat is presented as a be-all-end-all moral cataclysm. This is a common feature of kids’ programming and it’s pretty wildly unnecessary. What anyone will tell you about working with kids is that they know when they’re being patronized. Let the kids have their damn ghost-fighting/gadgets/superpowers/explosions cartoon without trying to force them to eat morality flavored vegetables, at least not this didactically. I’m reminded of a recent article I read on the original Nicktoon, Doug. To quote: “That story always deliberately found its way to a moral center. [Doug creator Jim] Jinkins would have his writers specifically identify the kid issue they were addressing a top of each individual script. ‘It sounds a little self-righteous,’ Jinkins said, ‘But I always knew there was going to be a moral foundation to the series.’…In the adult world, the notion of truth and not-truth is complicated, but I didn’t want to debate it. I didn’t want to show all of the ambiguity of the adult world to kids. I wanted to show kids a world where everyone took honesty seriously.’” Well, I haven’t seen Doug in a while, but that sounds pretty shitty and boring. It’s easy to be a moral absolutist in a universe where you make all the rules. That’s a universe we don’t live in. Acting like there aren’t shades of grey is insulting to kids who don’t need to have your weird conservative Christian family values moralism jammed down their throat when they’re just trying to watch a fun cartoon. Jinkins is now working on a kid’s cartoon about the 10 commandments. Can’t wait for the adultery episode! As far as Phantom’s status as a morality play, why does it have to be cheating on the standardized test that determines your entire future that leads Danny down a path of sin and iniquity? Having his whole family die isn’t bad enough? You might object that we’re told the deaths would never have happened without the cheating—but, uh, show, don’t tell. Rule number one. Instead, we’re treated to the scintillating fact that Dark Danny put rogue Johnny 13 (William Baldwin, Sliver) into a wheelchair. That’s great. That’s dark. Whatever. But you know what packs a bit bigger of a punch? The fiery death of Danny’s entire family, a very big moment that the show doesn’t earn in the slightest.

Final Episode Judgment: 3/10. Phantom has potential, but this was a deeply annoying hour of television. A particularly sad fact is that my internet research tells me that this episode is considered by fans to be Phantom’s zenith, which I dearly hope is not the case. Part of the reason for that appears to be that this is an unusually grim turn for a light-hearted show, but if light-hearted means more hacky jokes Danny’s loved ones should die every week.
NEXT TIME: We look at our first show from one of the big four networks, Early Edition.  

Case Study 9: Danny Phantom, Episode 28-29–“The Ultimate Enemy”

Case Study 8: Major Crimes, Episode 55–“Targets of Opportunity”

Original Airdate: July 20, 2015 on TNT

Crime dramas have been an evergreen staple of broadcast entertainment since the days of radio and now it seems they’re more popular than ever. I checked a few recent ratings charts and on average 8 of the 25 most highly rated shows are crime dramas, and that’s just the big primetime networks. I’m a little surprised it’s taken me this long to get to one! The reason this genre is so popular is obvious–a mystery is intrinsically interesting. There’s the obvious fact that finding out who committed a crime is a natural plot driver, but there’s also an opportunity to dig deep into rich veins of emotion and to address complex social issues and public institutions. There’s ample opportunity to work on multiple levels.

Major is a spinoff of The Closer, which was a reliable ratings hit on cable but missed me entirely. This alone speaks to the glut of crime dramas–I’ve sampled a lot of shows and enjoy the genre but never got around to this major hit series. Major is also a bit unusual for a spinoff in that it retains much of the cast and setting of the previous series, promoting a supporting character to the lead and keeping its creator, James Duff. From what I’m told, it also carries over Closer’s approach to storytelling, mixing intensely plotted procedure with emotional stories about the personal lives of the characters. It’s a descendant of NYPD Blue as opposed to Law & Order.

A quick note: This episode’s stems from events in Episode 35, “Jane Doe #38.” I watched that episode for background as well, but I won’t discuss it except as it’s relevant to the episode under review. I will say that it’s excellent and exponentially better than “Targets.” Considering that the story set up in that episode is still churning 23 episodes later, it might not be a bad place to jump into Major if you’re wanting to come in at a high point.

Strengths

  • Compelling mystery. The strength of the mystery du jour is what crime procedurals live or die on, and Major acquits itself well in this regard. It takes the Columbo approach where the viewer knows who is responsible and has the pleasure of watching the cast piece things together. Two cops have been shot and killed and the LAPD’s Major Crimes unit is pulling out all the stops to find the killers. Their best lead is a witness with ties to real-life gang MS-13, who have been major contributors to the astronomical crime rates in Central America’s blood-soaked Northern Triangle. The witness is named Rico Fornes (Carlos Pratts, McFarland, USA) and the bulk of the episode is spent tracking him down; he also carries the bulk of the hour’s emotional freight. Only Rico (and the viewer) knows that the murderers were posing as police. This was entertaining and reasonably sophisticated for 43 minutes of TV, but it could still be improved–see below.
  • Sleek. The production and direction of Major is very of the moment, which makes sense since it just aired a few months ago. Even considering that, though, everything is beautifully shot–the opening scene wrung mawkish, maudlin pathos out of its admittedly serious subject matter, but I was willing to forgive that since so much tender love and care had obviously been put into Hollywood-level staging. Mary McDonnell’s lead performance as Cap. Sharon Raydor is exquisite, complex and understated and is a fresh casting choice in the endless crowd of police procedurals. The genre lends itself to blustery scenery chewing–see Raymond Cruz’s (Breaking Bad) portrayal of Det. Julio Sanchez.

Weaknesses

  • Unsatisfying feint. While I like the way the show handles the red herring of MS-13, it’s not great that a potential MS-13 connection is way more interesting that what actually turns out to be going on. G.W. Bailey’s Det. Lt. Louis Provenza even lampshades this. “Well, you’d hope that they’d be terrorists or master criminals and that our people had died fighting the worst of the worst–but they were a couple of ex-cons playing dress-up and shaking down old people.” Yeah! You’re right! I would hope that they’d be terrorists or master criminals! Like MS-13! Especially since they don’t do a very good job of fleshing out the actual explanation. I realize it’s been done before, but it seems like an unnecessarily elaborate setup to impersonate cops to facilitate armed robbery. As Robert Gossett’s Chief Russell Taylor takes note of in the first scene, police/public relations are low right now. The show does not articulate the reason relations are low, which is of course the extensive and high-profile protests about police murdering black and brown citizens in cold blood. Part of the public response to these murders is to increase recording, documentation and scrutiny of police, especially in situations where they’re openly pointing guns at old black men at traffic stops, as is the case here. A one-off or ongoing story about MS-13 would have been fascinating, but I would have settled for actual internal police corruption as opposed to two yutzes with costumes. I just think it’s a bad idea to tease viewers with more interesting plotlines than what you actually end up delivering.
  • Paper-thin B plot. One of the key aspects of this show is that Raydor has adopted a wayward youth, Rusty Beck, as played by the extremely foxy Graham Patrick Martin. Rusty was abandoned at age 15 and in “Jane” developed an emotional connection to 15 year old victim Alice Herrera, another child who tried (and failed) to survive in a harsh world. Even after we learn who killed her and why, her background is shrouded in mystery and Rusty is determined to find out who she was. In “Targets,” Rusty has a sketchy contact and he uses police resources to clandestinely run a background check under the guise of helping the frantic double murder investigation. This is not really enough to sustain a subplot, even with the flaccid attempt at adding an emotional angle in the form of Rusty’s guilt about…not helping? Pretending to help? Which doesn’t make sense, since presumably he spent some time actually running legitimate checks as he was asked to do. And it’s not like he’s using police resources for a shitty reason–he’s trying to honor a murder victim, not find a drug hookup. As I said above, the Alice story as originally presented is gold–give this follow-up plot the chance to breathe it deserves.

Final Episode Judgment: 5/10. This episode of Major Crimes is competently executed, but unless you’re an insatiable crime drama fan, it’s not a reason to come back for more. Don’t write off Crimes entirely, though–I’d give “Jane” 8/10. The verdict is out on whether or not that episode is representative in terms of quality.
NEXT TIME: Danny Phantom.

Case Study 8: Major Crimes, Episode 55–“Targets of Opportunity”

Case Study 7: Paddington, Episode 4–“A Shopping Expedition”

Original Airdate: January 8th, 1975 on BBC

This is the first of three TV shows based on author Michael Bond’s beloved tales of a friendly anthropomorphic teddy bear living with a middle-class human family in London. The first Paddington Bear book appeared in 1958 and 25 books later the series is still going strong, with the latest entry having been released in 2014. The program under review appears to have been designed to serve as interstitial programming aired between full-length shows for kids, as each episode clocks in at about five minutes. It was also used for these purposes on various American TV channels to fill gaps in kid-friendly lineups. Paddington was later revived on television for a half season by Hanna-Barbera in 1989 and his most recent TV engagement garnered 117 episodes for Canadian TV in the late 90s, which were later rebroadcast by HBO. 2014 also saw the release of a Paddington feature film, which was well-received by both audiences and critics.

Strengths

  • Charming & sweet. I think this is a smart tonal choice for programming aimed at first graders. I remember when I was that age I was irritated that many movies and TV shows felt obligated to insert explosive conflict when I really just wanted to spend time watching fascinating characters in intriguing settings having fun and causing chaos. At five minutes Paddington can’t exactly build up a full head of steam on the dramatic front, and that’s just fine. That’s just enough time for a jolly, low-stakes misadventure. No one is in danger of being harmed and everyone loves each other. It’s warm and fuzzy, just like Paddington himself. Isn’t that what childhood should be, at least for a little bit? Maybe we can save the missile-shooting Gundams until they’re a little older.
  • A protagonist with a tangible, distinct personality. I think it’s a common—and totally understandable—misstep to make the main character of a kids’ show a generic child surrogate. There are two reasons people do this. There’s the common Hollywood fallacy that everyone wants to see people on screen who are just like them so let’s just go with the “default,” and there’s the fact that since the writers want the story to have silly hijinks, it’s easy to make the protagonist the sort of person who would seek out and create those hijinks. Of course, the perennial problem with the first line of thinking is that generic defaults leave quite a lot of people out, and the problem with the second line of thinking is that it’s lazy, and laziness is anathema regardless of your audience. Paddington is not your typical protagonist. He’s haughty. He’s proper. He’s understated. He treats a slightly insouciant department store employee to what the narrator (Michael Hordern, Where Eagles Dare)  refers to as “one of his special hard stares.” Of course, a “hard stare” from a teddy bear is fucking adorable regardless of how hard he thinks he is, but the department store guy visibly withers under Paddington’s glare. Lulz. Unlike your typical kid’s protagonist, Paddington isn’t driven by fears and emotional extremes. He’s pretty unflappable. The story, so much as there is one, is that Paddington needs to buy a new pair of pajamas, but he winds up in the display window instead of the fitting room. He tries them on, scarfs down one of his trademark marmalade sandwiches and goes to sleep in the display bed. When he wakes up, he realizes that a crowd of passersby are gawking at his antics. Instead of a hammy, broad reaction to this misunderstanding, Paddington just seems mildly surprised. The narrator notes that Paddington “suddenly wished he hadn’t bought such loud pajamas.” And that’s it! Maybe this reticence is a British thing, but the important part is that Paddington’s unique personality comes across in only five minutes. Well done!

Weaknesses

  • Aesthetically hideous. I was recently flummoxed when someone at a party advised me that they couldn’t bring themselves to watch Bojack Horseman due to its allegedly shoddy animation. They said it ranked even lower in their estimation than the animation on South Park. Reasonable people can disagree about where these shows and other animated efforts should fall on an aesthetic hierarchy, but for the most part I’m willing to meet animation where it’s at. If the story is compelling and I can tell what’s supposed to be happening, we’re good. But it turns out there is a lower limit to what I can tolerate and it’s Paddington. Here’s an example. I suppose I should applaud the show for being willing to experiment—it’s a strange admixture of a stop-motion puppet (Paddington) in what I hope is an intentionally sloppy 2D environment. The non-Paddington characters look like storyboard sketches and no attempt is made whatsoever to make them look like they’re of a piece with the stationary aspects of the environment. The thought process is a bit befuddling here. I get that stop-motion animation is expensive and labor-intensive. I get that the cuteness of the teddy bear that we’re all here to see would be blunted if he was rendered in this ghastly 2D style—it does in fact do the show a lot of favors that Paddington is an actual teddy bear wearing actual little pajamas and you want to give him a big hug. Nevertheless, this feels like an ill-begotten compromise executed by a committee. Look at what Hanna-Barbera was able to cough up in the 1980s. Nothing earth shattering, but it’s also not remarkably shitty. The characters’ mouths don’t even move—no, not even the titular puppet—and they’re all voiced by the narrator, who does a fine job, for what that’s worth.
  • Irretrievably dated. Now, I’m going to talk a bit more about how the utility of my rating system is going to differ a bit for kid’s and YA programming below, but for the most part I’m more forgiving of faults in children’s programming. It might drive us nuts that it really makes no sense that it would be this easy for a customer to mistake a fitting room for the entrance to a display window, or that there’d be a display of fragile kitchenwares right in front of the door to that display window positioned in such a way that no one could actually enter the display window without knocking those things over and breaking them into a million pieces. (Which, of course, is exactly what Paddington does.) Kids don’t mind this—it’s funnier if crazy mix-ups happen. It’s funnier if Paddington is a furry little engine of destruction and mayhem regardless of the practical considerations. But when the basic premises of the story aren’t comprehensible, things start to fall apart. There’s no way the creators of the show could know that 40 years after the short aired that retail commerce would be so completely transformed that a small child would have no point of reference for a department store with a display window facing a heavily trafficked city street. I mean, sure, that’s still a thing on Fifth Avenue or whatever. But almost everywhere else it’s mall sprawl, and even malls are now on the descendant. There was a time when every town big enough to have any kind of department store played host to a shop window like this, making it an instantly recognizable scenario for the show’s target demographic. Now? Not so much.

Usually my ratings are meant to serve as an index of whether or not and to what extent a show is worth your time, where you are a majority-aged consenting adult of wide and varied interests. Of course, there are not many adults out there contemplating whether or not the next thing they binge watch should be Paddington. So if I’m rating a kid’s show or a show for teens, the rating will reflect whether or not it’d be worth watching with your kids or teens. I thought about attaching this disclaimer to So Little Time, but no one of any age should watch that, so it was a bit of a moot point.

Final Episode Judgment: 6/10. It’s definitely not bad and at five minutes it’s hardly an extensive time commitment. Many, if not all, of the shorts are available free on YouTube. I’m also pretty confident that there have been many things released in the intervening 40 years that your kids might find more compelling, and you won’t have to explain how different Macy’s once was.

NEXT TIME: Major Crimes. We break the seal on TV’s endless supply of crime dramas with this spinoff of The Closer.

Case Study 7: Paddington, Episode 4–“A Shopping Expedition”