Case Study 17: Powerhouse, Episode 4–“Master of the Art”

Original Airdate: December 13th, 1982 on PBS

In some ways, Powerhouse is reminiscent of the TV show I claimed as my favorite when I was 8 years old–Ghostwriter. Much like Ghostwriter, Powerhouse is a live-action PBS show for kids starring a self-consciously multicultural troupe of supercool teens having adventures with the thinnest of educational veneers. Even though these shows star teens, I’m convinced they’re pitched at younger audiences. Not only are they dripping with didactic moralism, but they’re banking on the fact that little kids will think that teenagers are automatically cool and whatever they’re doing must also be cool as well. You can tell because no teenager remotely concerned with being cool would ever be caught dead watching these shows. But Ghostwriter sure as hell worked on me! Perhaps if I looked on it with today’s jaundiced critical eye I’d be displeased, though, because if Powerhouse is anything to go by, this formula can get ugly pretty damn quickly.

Strengths

  • A heist. Much like a murder mystery, a daring heist is a natural plot engine, and I’m a sucker for them. Considering the general level of production values and half-assery going on here, the heist at the episode’s core is surprisingly entertaining, hitting all the notes–multiple semi-contrived obstacles to overcome, down to the wire suspense and even an unexpected curveball thrown in by a nosy busybody determined to go somewhere she doesn’t belong, putting everything at risk for our heroes. I’m a little afraid to imagine what Powerhouse is like without a heist, though.

Weaknesses

  • Cacophonous. As you may have gathered, I can be particularly sensitive to an overbearing score or aggressively unnecessary musical cues. Let’s just say subtlety isn’t Powerhouse’s long suit. This episode is one of those where the whole thing centers on the problems of a character we’ve never seen and will never seen again. Here, that’s Thelma Gray (Anne Helms-Irons,) the head of security at an art museum. When Thelma reveals to the main characters that she’s lost her job, I get that we’re going to get a sad musical sting. But do we really need sad/dramatic stings in the scenes where the firing is being set up and Thelma is asking her boss why new security measures were implemented without her being notified? It’s sad when someone loses their job, but it’s a little melodramatic to pipe in the orchestral ominousness before it’s even remotely clear that the axe is about to drop. This is on top of generally clamorous musical cues all around, including a cheesy-even-for-1982 theme song and an impossibly large number of horrible noisy little children.
  • Utterly nonsensical. So what does a heist have to do with some random lady losing her job? Why, of course a ragtag team of scrappy teens who like to hang out at a community center are going to come together to help the woman steal artifacts from her former employer in an ill-conceived attempt to get her job back! The idea is to demonstrate that Thelma is a much better security chief than any lousy computer system, so I guess this is a story about automation in the labor force. It may be the stupidest and least realistic such story since John Henry, but that’s neither here nor there. Somehow, this idiotic plan works out perfectly and Thelma does indeed get her job back after demonstrating her ability to coordinate art theft. At the last minute it’s revealed that Thelma told her old boss about her plan in advance and he agreed to allow her to demonstrate, instead of doing something realistic like laughing for five minutes and then telling her to leave the building and never come back. In addition to being a plainly unsatisfying story with wildly implausible motivations, it also doesn’t do a very good job of meeting the show’s educational standard. The theme song declares that “we all have a powerhouse deep down inside,” so you’d expect some sort of mealy-mouthed parables about strong moral fiber and self-actualization. From the title, I was expecting one of the characters to try and discover their artistic potential. If they were going to do something around automation, I imagine the kids working together to research the issue, convene a community forum or a panel discussion with local experts on labor, technology and business, etc. Sure, it would be boring as hell, but this is PBS we’re talking about. Instead, all of that goes out the window and we get to see a story about teens discovering they have the power to–steal things. Admittedly, they’re stealing things in order to redress labor grievances, but I’m still not sure how that’s on message for PBS.
  • Interstitial insanity. Christ on a cross. Instead of taking another seven minutes of screen time to figure out a way to concoct a halfway believable motivation for after school grand larceny, Powerhouse decides to spend that time airing little Sesame Street style short films and animations on a variety of themes, all dripping with sickly-sweet moralism. At least there’s a redemptive factor in that the shorts are all hideously campy. One features a bunch of gawky teens chugging beer, shots and wine before attempting to run a marathon. They don’t do too well due to supposed alcohol side effects such as “blurry vision.” Hey kids! Don’t do shots before running a marathon! The more you know. The most nightmare inducing of these segments is an animated feature entitled “Celebrity Organ.” In lieu of an entertaining montage of star-studded wardrobe malfunctions, we’re given a talk show-esque set-up where the organ of the week can be interviewed. The organ of the week is of course not actually an organ: it’s a horrifying amorphous black blob with arms, legs and gigantic teeth. It’s teeth personified. Did I mention they’re vampire teeth? And the thing has a cape and a “Transylvanian” accent? “Comedy” is alleged to ensue, and we’re introduced to the hideous teeth’s hideous teeth son and it climbs into a coffin and long story short you and your entire family will have teeth nightmares. Why does Powerhouse do this, you ask? How the fuck else are they going to teach you about oral hygiene?! And if PBS doesn’t do that, who will!?!?
  • Racist. Wow, you may be thinking, how can Powerhouse possibly get worse? What if, when the kids are attempting to case the museum, we put them in sheikh outfits and burkas? Dressing up like people from other cultures is always hilarious and fun, especially if you’re planning to commit crimes! The sad thing is that Powerhouse is intended to be a sop to diversity, deliberately foregrounding an inner-city setting and a diverse cast. Apparently, in 1982 that meant whites, blacks and Latinos. Arabs only get to be included in the form of hilarious appropriation props. Speaking of which, that artifact the kids are trying to steal? An implicitly cursed Aztec artifact with glowing ruby eyes! The prospect that the artifact is cursed is brought up, along with an appropriately racist musical sting, but there’s no payoff, unless we’re supposed to think it cursed the guy from the security company who took Thelma’s job. Not only is this part of the story stupid, it’s also totally unnecessary! Hooray!
  • Anne Helms-Irons. Since IMDB didn’t even bother to include a full cast for this episode beyond the principals, I had some trouble even figuring out who this woman was. It turns out that’s because she built her career not as an actress, but as a social worker. As her obituary from the Baltimore Sun tells us, social work was just a way to pay the bills, because her true passion was the stage. And while I’m sure Ms. Helms-Irons was an awesome person and a great social worker, let’s just say that it’s entirely evident that her acting background consisted of star turns in community theater. It’s been frequently remarked upon that great stage actors don’t necessarily translate well to film because they’re used to delivering big and broad performances for folks in the back row of seats. That’s definitely what’s going on here, and it really doesn’t help that the reason that Thelma knows the Powerhouse kids at all is because she’s their magic tutor. What? Yes, of course that’s a thing! Of course that is a thing that you would have. A magic tutor. So Thelma’s the kinda gal that uses her sick sleight-of-hand skillz to produce a rose from thin air when introduced to the security company stooge about to take her job, and coming from Helms-Irons it fits right in. In other words, she’s a goddamned bone-in ham.

Motivation: For some reason, the kids on this show give two shits about Thelma’s gainful employment, so this is all in service of her getting work/money.

Final Episode Judgment: 1/10. Chances are pretty good that you’ll find another way to scratch that itch for a well-executed heist.

NEXT TIME: I peek inside the Secret Diary of a Call Girl!

Case Study 17: Powerhouse, Episode 4–“Master of the Art”

Case Study 16: Community, Episode 68–“Curriculum Unavailable”

Original Airdate: May 10th, 2012 on NBC

This is only the second episode of TV that I’m reviewing that I’ve seen before and the first proper sitcom I’ve covered. I think comedies might be a bit harder to review than dramas, because so much of humor is subjective. I also think Community in particular might be challenging since I’m a big fan and I might be too close to the subject to give it a fair assessment. Let’s see, shall we?

Strengths

  • Funny. This is obviously the number one concern with a sitcom, but it’s also the most subjective, as I said. Community is a modern single-camera sitcom with no laugh track and rapid-fire banter rich in jokes and asides. This kind of sitcom is much more likely to be successful at gut-busting since you don’t have to sit in wintry silence through 20 seconds of uproarious canned laughter at each unfunny joke. If the first joke doesn’t appeal, one of the three told in those intervening 20 seconds on a single-camera show probably will. This particular episode returns to an amusing device that the show had previously used in the episode “Paradigms of Human Memory.” From all outward appearances, “Curriculum” is a clip show, but regular viewers of the show will quickly realize that much as in “Paradigms,” all the clips are in fact unique to this episode. This is great for the writers, because they can string together a bunch of jokes with minimal context and without worrying about writing full stories around them. This works reasonably well for “Curriculum.” All I can really do here is point to examples, and it doesn’t help that television is an audiovisual medium and many of the best gags depend on sight gags and the actors deliveries and reactions, but here goes. For me, the single funniest joke fell in a montage detailing the many dysfunctions of the show’s setting, Greendale Community College. Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase, National Lampoon’s Vacation) emerges from a toilet stall. Immediately, jolly music starts to play and party horns trumpet. A banner falls from the ceiling reading “10,000th Flush!” People jubilantly jump out of the adjacent stalls and 20 more celebrants rush in, putting a glittery top hat on Pierce as balloons and confetti obscure the entire scene. It’s about a 15 second clip and it could have been thoroughly half-assed. On paper, the concept of celebrating a 10,000th flush is only mildly amusing–but the execution is perfect and hilarious. Another montage showcases the psychotic behavior of Ben Chang (Ken Jeong, The Hangover), including a shot of him grinding up Doritos and snorting them like cocaine. We’re also treated to a clip revealing that Annie Edison (Alison Brie) feels excluded from the childish, imagination-rich antics of best friends Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) and Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi.) Troy and Abed regularly “host” a pretend morning talk show, “Troy and Abed In The Morning.” In the clip, Annie is replicating the setup, complete with teddy bears playing the roles of Troy and Abed and Annie rewriting the “show’s” signature jingle. Of course, Troy and Abed walk in on her. When Annie claims she’s not doing anything, Troy fires back with “Nothing my ass! What are all these cameras doing here!?” He gestures angrily at the empty room. Hee!
  • Excellent cast. Not every joke in this half hour is a shining gem, and while there are few stinkers several so-so bits are elevated by the stellar performances of an impeccable cast with a very fluid and comfortable dynamic. Glover in particular is a treasure, nailing every read and completely selling the audience on the gormless, childlike Troy. The cast breathes life into characters that are unevenly developed. Chang, Dean Craig Pelton (Jim Rash) and Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown) verge on irritating and one-note on the page but Jeong, Rash and Brown soften the edges.

Weaknesses

  • Insidery. Anyone paying attention to Community’s fortunes is aware that while it was a critical darling and a cult favorite, it never earned the wide viewership that the network and the distributor had hoped for. That was certainly unlikely to change by the late third season, but for an uninitiated viewer this installment might seem particularly punishing. The plot of the episode and the framing for the cavalcade of clips involves Abed being forced to meet with a therapist named Dr. Heidi (John Hodgman, Coraline) to account for his consistently erratic behavior. Of course, his best friends from the Greendale study group also insist on attending the meeting. This means all the show’s main cast members, with the exception of Rash and Jeong. It turns out that Heidi is not a real therapist but rather a pawn in an insane scheme being executed by Chang. Heidi momentarily succeeds at gaslighting the group into thinking that Greendale is a collective delusion, and this is really the comedic climax of the show–we’re shown a montage demonstrating that this is well within the realm of possibility based on the crazed antics depicted week to week on the show. Unlike the fake clips preceding the montage, the gags here are all grounded in past incidents on the show. You’d have to be a somewhat regular viewer to appreciate and enjoy what’s going on here. Of course, it works on a meta level–this is Community, after all. It suggests that the viewers of the show are also delusional to suspend their disbelief to the extent of believing that a community college could play host to epic and cinematic annual on-campus paintball wars, secret trampolines and protracted musical numbers. Even this observation is half-hearted, though, because it ignores the fact that part of the magic of the show is its ability to provide genuine emotional grounding to the gratuitous ridiculousness on display–for instance, “Paradigms” doesn’t feel like an excuse for context-free clip show gags since the actual plot is devoted to the show dealing with the ramifications on the group of an affair between Jeff Winger (Joel McHale, The Soup) and Britta (Gillian Jacobs.) The upshot here is that people who aren’t regular viewers wouldn’t be able to connect the dots between the cast’s unhinged renditions of these activities in a mental asylum and what’s actually transpired on the show, and it doesn’t help that the show has been inundating you with clips of things that didn’t actually happen on the show. This might be helped by the overall show’s biggest strength–the delirious innovation frequently on display. The show is constantly willing to break new ground for the half-hour sitcom and often it works gloriously well. But this isn’t actually all that innovative, since it had been done rather more deftly in “Paradigms.” There, you could appreciate the wacky clips and be blissfully unaware of the top-level payout–that the clips were all fake, even though some had been expertly presented as multiple excerpts from full-blown stories. But the hook this hangs on is the Greendale Asylum scenario, which would totally fall flat for a first-time viewer. It may be unreasonable for a viewer to expect to be able to drop in on a long-running serialized drama and appreciate depths and nuance, but they should absolutely be able to do that with a sitcom. Part of me feels uncharitable in making this criticism because it would be impossible to break the mold weekly in a 22 episode production cycle and this format is clearly meant to be easier on the writers, who were surely exhausted by this point in the year, but this still could have been handled in a more accessible way. The show is insidery in another way, as well–it’s saturated with less-than-obvious pop culture references thanks to obsessive culture vulture Abed. We’re shown a clip where he won’t suffer Shirley’s praise for Brett Ratner’s Tower Heist. He shows off an amusingly undercooked Don Draper impression. Another clip displays his dramatic dismay upon winning a prize in a paintball match consisting of tickets to see Chicago at the Greendale Civic Center starring George Wendt and Stefanie Powers. Again, I understand that the writers have a hard line to walk here–Abed’s pop culture fixation is a central part of his character and it’s far from unreasonable to expect a baseline cultural familiarity from the average viewer. And it’s possible to take this criticism too far–consider Dan Harmon’s justified frustration that the producers doubted whether or not viewers would understand references to Pulp Fiction in “Critical Film Studies.” On the other hand, Tower Heist is asking a bit much of your average Nielsen family. Even Mad Men is no guarantee in an exceedingly fractured media landscape. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to build jokes around obscure pop culture references–Abed’s obsession with 2011’s short-lived The Cape works perfectly well even if the viewer doesn’t realize that Cape is sadly a real thing. For a master class in the ability to integrate pop culture references without alienating the viewer, check out The Simpsons. In “Whacking Day” when Lisa is desperately searching for a bass-intensive volume in the family’s music collection, you don’t have to be familiar with the specific music in question to know that “Tiny Tim,” “The Chipmunks’ Greatest Hits” or “A Castrato Christmas” obviously don’t fit the bill. You don’t need to have heard a note of hip-hop to realize that Homer’s proposed rap jingle in “Mr. Plow” is truly atrocious.
  • Part of a dumb storyline. This episode is part of a distinctly unrewarding and asinine storyline involving Chang’s scheme to usurp the Dean by kidnapping him, replacing him with a lookalike and getting the study group expelled. It’s over the top with no narrative payoff other than abundant lulz. Even as the show lampshades its tenuous grip on reality,  this storyline suffers from a distinct lack of grounding. It’s also not like the show would have been hard-pressed to find a way to get the deeply eccentric Abed in front of a therapist if the writers wanted to run with this particular format regardless.

Motivation: Since this show is at its best when allowing the excellent dynamic between its principles to thrive, its strongest installments center on friendship, as seen in “Paradigms.” While certainly entertaining, this isn’t one of the strongest installments and the big payoff is the knowledge that Abed’s theory about the existence of a “doppeldeaner” is in fact correct.

Final Episode Judgment: 7/10. I’m hard-pressed to think of any episode during Dan Harmon’s run on Community that isn’t worth watching and while it’s not perfect, there are plenty of good laughs to be found in “Curriculum.”

Final Series Judgment: 8/10. While on the grand scale, Community is marred by a deeply shitty fourth season, constant cast changes in the final three seasons and uneven character development, its bravado, high-wire innovation, crackling wit and stellar dynamic among its initial cast members means that it comes highly recommended by me.

NEXT TIME: I cover Powerhouse! What the hell is Powerhouse, you ask? Well, you’ll just have to wait and see! Or you could look it up on Wikipedia, but where’s the fun in that?

Case Study 16: Community, Episode 68–“Curriculum Unavailable”

Case Study 15: Mobile Suit Gundam SEED C.E. 73: Stargazer, Episode 3–“Stage 03”

Original “Airdate:” September 29th, 2006 on Bandai Channel

In the last installment of my sporadic coverage of the world of anime, I discussed Lupin The Third, a sprawling multimedia franchise that first appeared on TV in the 1970s and which subsequently grew like kudzu. The Gundam franchise makes Lupin look like a deep cut. Gundam also arose out of humble circumstances in the 1970s and basically took over the damn world. TVTropes calls Gundam “the Japanese equivalent of Star Trek.Trek is probably the closest comparison possible, but it still doesn’t do Gundam justice, since Gundam is about twenty times more successful. Looking at TV alone, the Gundam-verse has spawned 19 series. That count doesn’t even include today’s offering, because Stargazer is a companion web series to Gundam’s 11th TV reincarnation, Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny. In addition to TV, Gundam has spawned feature films, direct-to-dvd offerings, manga, video games, model kits and a garbage barge full of toys and other merchandise. Tokyo even plays host to a Gundam theme park. With 19 different shows, I somehow doubt this will be the last you’ll hear from me on this franchise.

It’s also worth noting the fact that this is a web-series. With Netflix, Hulu and Amazon offering critically acclaimed programming, it’s impossible to ignore web platforms in my quest for great TV, but I will have to apply some holistic metrics to determine whether or not any given web series is worth a review. There are a few factors working in Stargazer’s favor–it’s intimately connected to a traditional TV offering while standing on its own as a discrete story, it’s high-profile enough to merit coverage, it was distributed through an established, non-YouTube platform and the entire show gets in and out in less than an hour. It’s three 15-minute “episodes” long, and for the purposes of this review I watched all three. It also helps that it turned out to be really damn good–and sadly topical.

Strengths

  • Giant flying robots. Well, I don’t care about these so much, but I suspect that if you’re sniffing around the perimeter of Gundam you’ve got a vested interest in seeing super-cool giant flying robots, and here they are. It’s actually a pretty canny innovation on Gundam’s part. You want to create a space opera with a focus on war and internecine political conflict, but how do you set yourself apart from the pack? The answer turned out to be 86ing spacecraft-based combat and inserting giant flying robots piloted by vulnerable fleshy humans. Seems like it worked!
  • Probing, elegant, multi-faceted exploration of war. Now, to Gundam fans Stargazer might be old hat. The series has long focused on war and conflict, since its titular draw is in fact war machines. It’s possible the franchise’s writers have been running out of fresh insights on the topic, since they’ve been covering that beat for 36 years. But to someone with absolutely no prior experience with Gundam, this was an unexpectedly insightful tour de force. The main theme here is the potential costs of the military-industrial complex’s encroachment on supposedly neutral scientific endeavor, but the show manages to touch on many evils in what amounts to a scathing indictment of warmongering. In this iteration of the Gundamverse, we’re presented with a scenario where genetically engineered superhumans known as Coordinators have established themselves on extraplanetary colonies, while Earth remains the domain of non-engineered humans, known as Naturals. Stargazer takes place in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of a second brutal war between Earth and the colonies. The overarching story of this war is told in Destiny, while Stargazer focuses on the experience of two new characters during the conflict. Selene McGriff (Sayaka Ohara, XXXHOLiC) is a hotshot scientist at DSSD, a politically neutral space agency hoping to survey and develop areas beyond Mars. She’s working on a cutting-edge Gundam called Stargazer. It’s designed to explore space unaccompanied by humans thanks to advanced AI technology. The first 20 minutes of Stargazer chronicle the immediate aftermath of a cataclysmic attack from the colonial military that destroys, among other things, Beijing. Selene narrowly manages to get to an Earth-based DSSD launch-site to escort Stargazer to a DSSD space station. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Sven Cal Bayang (Daisuke Ono, K), a soldier in an elite unit of the Earth military which is rapidly being mobilized. Ultimately, Sven leads an operation to claim Stargazer for the Earth army. It’s horrifying to see earnest, geeky, apolitical scientists get gunned down in cold blood, but we only reach this climax after running a gauntlet of similar horrors. During the opening attack, Selene is accompanied by her mentor/implicit lover, Edmond Du Clos (Jouji Nakata, Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works.) Just as we’re starting to get a feel for who he is and the groove of his relationship with Selene, he dies horribly in a fight with an attacking Gundam so that Selene has enough cover to get to the launch site. When that Gundam finally gets brought down, it turns out it was being piloted by…child soldiers. In a video message, the children announce that their parents were all killed in the war by Naturals, and with dead eyes they swear vengeance. Seeing this, Sven’s colleague Mudie Holcroft (Rina Satou, Negima!?) parrots what she’s been taught: “The only good Coordinator is a dead Coordinator.” Before long, we’re seeing her terrified screams when she dies horribly. The child soldiers also mirror Sven’s history—he was once a happy and enthusiastic child with a fascination for astronomy and all things space related, but then his parents died in a terrorist attack and he became a ward of the state. After some A Clockwork Orange style brainwashing and reeducation, he’s turned into a dead-eyed soldier with no qualms about murdering the astronomers he didn’t get to become. When Sven’s normally gung-ho colleague Shams Couza (Hiroshi Kamiya, Angel Beats!) tells Sven of the plans to seize Stargazer, regardless of how many civilian personnel have to be killed, Sven’s only response is “I see.” A frustrated Shams bitterly replies, “You’re always like that…making that ‘It has nothing to do with me’ expression.” Indeed, earlier in the episode we saw Sven unblinkingly raze a refugee camp packed with civilians. He mildly asks his commanding officer if he’s to restrict himself to just killing terrorists. His CO replies, “Can you tell the terrorists apart from the refugees?” Sven replies that he can’t. “Well, that’s how it is.” And where does this all lead? The climactic battle ends with Selene and Sven improbably confined together in Stargazer, which is slowly heading back to Earth. It’s not entirely clear, but at the end of the episode it’s strongly implied they didn’t survive the trip home. This is the nature of war: a vicious cycle of humanity’s worst instincts cutting a swath of destruction through everything in its path. Regardless of the politics—regardless even of the outcome—nobody wins. All of the people we’re given any understanding of in this hour are destroyed. Humans get turned into cruel fighting machines, even when humans are trying to turn cruel fighting machines into benign space exploration tools. Stargazer may be the only “character” that really walks away from the fray, but what has it learned? Selene tries to teach it what she learned from Edmond—don’t look to the side to enviously compare and compete with those around you. Don’t look down for the purposes of self-aggrandizement. Look up. Look for the better nature. Look for hope. Look towards the stars. What else did the humans teach Stargazer?

Weaknesses

  • Opaque battle sequences. I’ve never been a fan of the action genre and especially not the war genre. It’s not necessarily because of any particular aversion to the content or the stories—though I’m not exactly a fan of the good old ultraviolence. A big factor, however, is that I hate not knowing what’s going on in a story. I don’t mean because of artsy surrealism or obfuscation. I get the sense that in the final battle scene here, I’m supposed to know exactly what’s going on. But I haven’t memorized which ships are on each side, because I’m not a hardcore Gundam nerd. I don’t know who’s speaking when their faces are mostly obscured by battle helmets, because I haven’t memorized the sounds of everyone’s voices. I understand what the outcome is when the hurlyburly’s done, but they might as well not show me the battle itself because it’s just a big chaotic mess. And from what I understand, that can be true of the fog of war as well—yelling and screaming and bullets ripping by and complete and utter disorientation. I gather that this is a feature and not a bug for some folks, but it actively gets in the way of my enjoyment because I can’t tell what the fuck is happening. Why not just skip the battle altogether if it’s only going to make sense after close study of the Gundam wiki, which for the record is perhaps the geekiest document on the planet?

Motivation: Survival. Unfortunately, everyone loses.

Final Series Judgment: 9/10. This was searingly on point and also had giant flying robots. What’s not to love? I’m not sure how it measures up to the rest of Gundam-–after 11 preceding TV shows, this might be well-covered ground—but as a newcomer, I was blown away. They really accomplish quite a bit in less than an hour.

NEXT TIME: I’ll struggle to turn in a review of Community that isn’t covered with biased fanboy slobber.

Case Study 15: Mobile Suit Gundam SEED C.E. 73: Stargazer, Episode 3–“Stage 03”

Case Study 14: Space: Above and Beyond, Episode 11–“The River of Stars”

Original Airdate: December 17th, 1995 on Fox

In 1995, The X-Files was an up-and-coming cult hit on a burgeoning new network. Fox had had early success with The Simpsons, Married With Children, 90210, In Living Color, Martin and Melrose Place, but they were having trouble gaining equal footing with the other big names in broadcast television. By 1996, X-Files was a bona fide sensation, becoming the first Fox series to breach the Nielsen top 20. But it’s apparent that even before that, Fox knew they wanted to invest in what seemed to be a growing appetite for sci-fi. In addition to The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., Fox also gave a development deal to two of the brightest stars in the X-Files writing room: co-writers Glen Morgan and James Wong. Together, they had penned some of the first two season’s most memorable episodes, such as the intense Alaskan bottle episode “Ice.” After Space flopped and Morgan & Wong came back to X-Files with tails betwixt legs, they also contributed many shining gems to season 4, including the seminal “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man,” which was credited solely to Morgan. They then went on to play a leadership role on Millennium, and for some reason their careers have failed to take off like rocketships. Is Space yet another tale of a brilliant sci-fi/fantasy vehicle cancelled before its time due to a niche audience for the genre in the vein of Firefly, Star Trek or, dare I say it, Hindsight? Or does it deserve its fate in the inky obscurity of the memory hole? It will not shock you to learn that it’s a little of both.

Strengths

  • Intelligent script-writing. It’s always a pleasure when a writer takes joy in knowledge and learning, and it’s especially appropriate for a space opera sci-fi program. Outer space is amazingly cool and it’s something we wouldn’t know anything about without thousands of years of humans striving to understand their world. I mean, look at the Cygnus Loop Nebula. That’s what sci-fi is competing with in terms of conveying a sense of wonder and beauty in a universe where there’s so much we don’t understand. This is an exquisite pleasure of what is sometimes called “hard” sci-fi: when the astonishing things we already know about the world go hand in hand with the astonishing things we can only imagine and work in concert. That’s not to say that soft sci-fi isn’t also thrilling–hell, look at Hindsight. The mechanism doesn’t have to make sense or even be explained for the story to be fascinating. But when a story is laced with a nerdy grounding in real-world facts, who am I to resist? Brian K. Vaughan is a good example of someone who consistently delivers this in his comic book writing and to a certain extent his work on Lost. On the other hand, I’m not sure what the hell was going on in Vaughan’s season on Under The Dome. Nevertheless, the script for this episode of Space ties the story and themes into subjects ranging from the Christmas truce, the scientifically dubious notion that television and radio transmissions are legible light years away from Earth, the constellation Eriadnus, Romeo & Juliet and the Bible. As you’ll see, I wasn’t thrilled with the end result, but some care and thoughtfulness was taken with this aspect of the show.
  • A phenomenal third act set piece. Speaking of a sense of wonder, despite this hour’s flaws the whole thing was worthwhile to watch the sequence where 1st Lt. Paul Wang (Joel de la Fuente) must manually rotate the engine of the small spacecraft (in Space parlance, an “APC”) where he and his fellow crewmen have been stranded in enemy territory after a fight against bandits gone wrong. This requires a spacewalk, and the look in Wang’s eyes when he gets out of the APC and sees the stars around him–well, it’s a thing of wonder. This is amplified by the fact that earlier in the episode we heard him reminisce about his youth on Earth looking at Eriadnus and marvelling at the constellation’s beauty and constancy. In that moment, you can imagine why Wang became a space marine. Not to mention the fact that for something made in 1995 on what can’t have been an astronomical budget, the spacewalk looks entirely believable–unlike, say, the chaos that erupts in the APC after it is initially disabled and is spinning wildly.

Weaknesses

  • No future culture. This show falls prey to a common failing among sci-fi set in the future. Without thinking seriously about the evolution of culture decades or centuries into the future, it’s hard to create a textured, lived-in reality. A quick and lazy way to do that is to create an environment where everyone is obsessed with the culture of the second half of the 20th century. Futurama is set in the year 3000, but we’re given jokes like a David Dinkins themed donut shop or a bartending robot modelled on Isaac from The Love Boat. Sure, it’s a comedy and the anachronism is part of the joke, but it still loses something because you feel like the writers are reaching for cheap pop culture jokes that have nothing to do with the very unique setting they’re working with. For another example, look to Ernest Cline’s novel Ready, Player One, which is set in 2045 and which features a teen protagonist obsessed with the 80s pop culture of Cline’s youth. This tendency rears its head in Space when the APC picks up on a broadcast of 1966’s Batman and, apparently, 1st Lt. Nathan West (Morgan Weisser) is a fan. Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Batman franchise still exists in 2063, but it stretches credulity to posit that West is a casual fan of a show from 100 goddamned years ago. I say casual because he indicates that the show features “one guy that’s like a bat and one guy that’s like a bird.” Space gets it exactly wrong–no one knows what Batman is, except for the dude that is passingly familiar with an artifact of the franchise that is already fading into obscurity today. It would be better if they took a moment to discuss a Batman sitcom airing in 2063 where the Caped Crusader starts an organic produce co-op. At one point, Capt. Shane Vansen (Kristen Cloke, Final Destination–which is incidentally another Morgan/Wong production) distributes Christmas presents to her crew, fearing she may not get another chance. Her gift for 1st Lt. Cooper Hawkes (Rodney Rowland) is a copy of Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. This would be like giving your buddy a record by The Carter Family for Christmas. What, there’s no worthwhile records from the 2040s? This is science fiction. We’re in the future. Despite what they may say, human culture did not begin and end with the baby boomers.
  • Botched exploration of a theme. This episode of Space badly wants to say something on the subject of faith but what that something is never actually comes together. As mentioned, the plot centers on an intrepid crew of space marines marooned when their APC is disabled. Life support systems are beginning to fail and they seem consigned to either a slow and painful death or a brief and painful death if they are found by their enemies. It’s also Christmas. The world of Space  features a subaltern class of humans called In Vitros. As the name suggests, they’re artificially gestated until they reach the age of 18, at which point they’re harshly brought into a world where they are resented and objectified. Rowland is an In Vitro forced into conscription after violently resisting his would-be captors, but due to his decidedly unusual upbringing he knows nothing about Christmas. 1st Lt. Vanessa Damphousse (Lanei Chapman) explains the holiday from a Christian perspective, which Wang tartly rebuts with material realities. But it turns out the problem is not (just) Wang’s secular humanism but rather bitterness and disillusionment fostered by being a soldier in a brutal and violent war. Of course, we can’t just let reasonable people disagree, so a deus shows up in this particular machina in the form of a mysterious transmission that instructs our heroes how to maneuver themselves into the gravitational range of a passing comet that will take them straight back home. As Wang notes, this context-free suggestion from the universe will only serve the marines if they take its advice on…faith. And when Wang goes out to adjust that engine, Vansen reminds him that they are putting their faith in him. And back home their commanding officer TC McQueen (James Morrison, 24) tirelessly awaits their return despite the fact that he’s received no communication from them and has no idea where they are, because he has faith. Upon their happy return, West advises Wang that if he wants to understand faith, he needs only to look Eriadnus as he did as a boy, because “faith is knowing that something is always there.” Of course, that’s a neat little tagline, but it’s also simplistic and frankly kind of stupid. True faith, the faith that this show is trying to talk about, is not merely a confidence that the sun will rise tomorrow. There’s a reason that faith and hope are often mentioned in the same breath, because faith is what spurs hope on. If you have faith in yourself or your partner or your god or humanity, you have a reason to keep moving despite the odds. The show attempts to posit that the most important form of faith in this context is the crew’s faith in each other, but it doesn’t actually demonstrate that. What does it mean that Vansen has faith in Wang when he goes to adjust the engine? What trust is she placing in him? It’s not like he’s going to intentionally fuck things up and kill them all. Does she have “faith” that he’s smart enough and determined enough to move the engine? If he weren’t, it would hardly be a moral failing on his part, so it all strikes me as pretty damn hollow. Also, if you want to tell a story about the power of faith it’s awfully cheap and unconvincing to insert a magic lifesaving comet into the narrative proceedings. Faith draws its power from believing despite the evidence, from outside of the evidence. If you need a miracle to have faith, you’re doing it wrong. It’s nice to see the show trying to say something instead of just rolling with a naturally suspenseful survival story, but seeing how it turned out makes me wish they had just let the story carry itself.

Motivation: Well, it seems pretty transparent that the stakes here are survival, but as I said, the show’s not actually interested in telling a story about that. It’s trying to tell a story about Wang’s self-discovery. It’s trying to tell the story of a man who crosses himself before every mission finding a reason to believe in God again. It’s just not doing it super well.

Final Episode Judgment: 5/10. This has the bones of a promising show, but an hour of memorable television this is not.

NEXT TIME: We return to our recurring coverage of the anime world by taking a look at yet another franchised juggernaut: Gundam. (See what I did there?)

Case Study 14: Space: Above and Beyond, Episode 11–“The River of Stars”

Case Study 13: Hindsight, Episode 5–“Then I’ll Know” (also some meta commentary)

Original Airdate: February 4, 2015 on VH1

I’m so happy because I’ve finally found the first show I haven’t seen before that I can wholeheartedly recommend. I hadn’t even heard of Hindsight until it came up via my selection method. It aired for all of two months before vanishing into the abyss, and even when I did hear about it, I was dismissive–it aired on a network not known for scripted fare, it was a complete ratings flop and the critics ignored it. I think the biggest stumbling block was the network–if it had aired elsewhere it might have found an audience.

I have fond memories of VH1. My older brother got me excited about music at a young age and VH1 was his station of choice. We quickly became Pop-Up Video addicts. Of course, VH1 was intended as a softer version of MTV for an older demographic, so I was saturated with dreck like Natalie Imbruglia, The Wallflowers and Smashmouth. I tuned into VH1 occasionally through 2004 for things like I Love The 80s, and then I stopped watching much TV at all for several years. By the time I came back, VH1 was wall-to-wall reality shows and I haven’t payed very much attention since. Now that I look at their slate of shows, it seems that the demographic has decidedly shifted from aging white people looking for a Phil Collins fix to young black women. Which is great! There aren’t enough black faces on television and K. Michelle is bookable. The thing is, VH1 is also now known for reality shows. It is not known as a source of high-quality original scripted programming. It is not AMC or HBO or even FX. I do understand why VH1 thought this would be a good match for their audience and those who watched it when it was on the air probably enjoyed it. But the rest of us didn’t notice it, and that includes critics–I could only find two mentions of the show on the AV Club’s website and both included grumbling about its resemblance to Do Over, a WB series from thirteen years ago that aired 11 episodes. That is a complaint you’re only likely to hear from a profoundly nerdy TV geek, and look who’s talking. For the purposes of this review, I watched episodes 1, 3, 5 and 6 of Hindsight for context.

Strengths

  • Strong story. This episode uses the very common trope of presenting us with an end point in the story and going back chronologically to show us how events unfolded. This isn’t any kind of narratological innovation, but the execution is damn near flawless. It’s also thematically appropriate to use this trope, since Hindsight is about Becca Brady (Laura Ramsey, She’s The Man), a woman on the verge of turning 40 who regrets the decisions she’s made in her life. She gets a second bite at the apple when unexplained circumstances transport her back in time to 1995. She gets a job writing for a music magazine and predicting the next new thing. Here, she gets her first serious assignment: covering an R.E.M. concert in Chapel Hill, NC. So this is a road trip episode–complicated by the fact that the event we were shown in the opening moments of the episode is a grisly car accident. Joining Becca is her best friend Lolly Lavigne (Sarah Goldberg, The Dark Knight Rises) and Lolly’s friend Paige Hill (Drew Sidora, Step Up.) Misadventure follows on misadventure as the ladies endure a flat tire, getting pulled over by a cop and arriving at Chapel Hill only to find their ticket connection has fallen through and they can’t get into the concert. All’s not lost, however–they’re able to get a sweet vantage point amidst a bunch of college students partying atop a nearby parking garage. Interviewing young lovers for her article reminds Becca of another problem in her life: her relationship with Andy Kelly (Nick Clifford, The Opportunist.) Twenty years into the future, the night Becca travels back in time is also the night before her marriage to Andy, a family friend since childhood who has always carried a torch for her from afar. In 1995, the two had recently shared a clandestine kiss–behind the back of Andy’s girlfriend, Melanie Morelli (Jessy Hodges, Beside Still Waters.) The road back to New York City features an exit to Spring Lake, a town where Becca and Andy’s families shared a cabin and the site of Becca’s idyllic childhood summers. She decides to pull the trigger on her feelings for Andy and invites him to the cabin to discuss their relationship. He feels conflicted, so Becca gives him an ultimatum–drive to Spring Lake and move forward together, or stay in the city with Melanie. Andy heads to the cabin–and gets into the accident. The episode also sees Becca and Paige achieving a mutual respect for each other after getting off on a bad foot due to Paige getting involved with Becca’s first husband, Sean Reeves (Craig Horner, Legend Of The Seeker.) Overall, we’re given a tight package showcasing Becca’s ongoing quest to make good decisions in a world where she has extensive knowledge of but little control over events. The car accident we’re shown in the opening throws a pallor over a road trip already laden with tension and we wince as Becca locks eyes with Paige multiple times as she’s speeding on her way to the concert and as they careen down the highway on the way home. The hour also crams in subplots about Lolly’s relationship with her father, Harry (Alan Ruck, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and Becca’s brother Jamie (John Patrick Amedori, The Butterfly Effect) tries to reconcile Andy and Sean in the wake of a fight over Becca’s affections. There’s not a wasted second here and all the pieces matter. It’s a great example of effective storytelling in action.
  • Well-drawn characters. The best example of this isn’t a single character but rather the interplay between Becca and Lolly. At the beginning of the series, Becca looks back on a failed marriage, a wasted career, disappointed and divorced parents and a brother struggling with addiction. But the thing she regrets the most is the end of her friendship with Lolly. Lolly is the yin to Becca’s yang. Becca diligently works long hours at a thankless job, whereas Lolly does everything she can to not be productive at the video rental store where she works. She’s a shit-stirrer while Becca is a people pleaser. Becca’s never been with anyone but Sean, but Lolly is adventurous enough to engage in a seamy hookup at Lollapalooza. They need each other. Becca keeps the cupboards in their apartment laden with food and Lolly gives Becca a necessary release valve from a stressful, button-up life. So Lolly is the natural choice when Becca needs to reveal her secret to someone and the chemistry between Ramsey and Goldberg is perfect. Here we get to see another side of Lolly and another contrast with Becca. Becca has close ties with her parents and is anxious at the prospect of their incipient divorce, though the show seems to drop this plotline after the pilot, probably because there was already enough on the plate. Lolly, on the other hand, had her childhood disrupted by a tumultuous divorce and is now estranged from both parents, especially her father. Much like Becca’s mother Georgie (Donna Murphy, Tangled) will be 20 years later, Harry is disappointed in his daughter’s dead-end job and failure to meet her ambitions–though Lolly calls him out on the fact that he doesn’t even know what her ambitions are, due to his chronic absentee status. Strong character based moments show up throughout the episode, whether it’s Paige explaining that she’s still dedicated to a career as an actress despite her parents stealing all the money she made as a child star or Andy drunkenly regaling Sean with the details of Warcraft.
  • Resonant thematic cohesiveness. Hindsight weaves a very compelling tale of retrospection and regret. Who hasn’t wondered how their life would have unfolded if they had made different decisions? Humans have been using narrative to contemplate fate, destiny and critical decisions since Oedipus Rex. This is something that will always hold our interest. Like its female-driven HBO cousin Girls, Hindsight delves into resonant and provocative questions about the awkward period of transition known as your twenties. This episode in particular makes a compelling case for the idea that taking provocative action is the best way to resolve conflicts and uncertainties, for better or worse. This crystallizes for Becca when one of her interview subjects (Matt Orlando, Pieces of Peace) says of the possibility of a relationship with a female character that “it’s an open road.” In addition to the obvious road-trip theme, it’s a reminder that for Becca, anything is possible now, including a relationship with Andy. Lolly confronts her father, and though she has every reason to be angry, she gracefully says that she doesn’t want them to grow further apart, and he agrees to try harder. Spurred by Lolly, Paige and Becca work out their issues and come to a mutual respect for one another’s abilities. Though Jamie has the ulterior motive of impressing Lolly, he tries to broker a peace between Andy and Sean, and while that doesn’t work both men learn something about themselves. We’re also given a counterexample of the toxicity of unresolved conflict–Melanie spends all night viciously sniping at Andy over his indiscretion. The viewer wonders why they’re still trying to work it out or if they ever will. Many shows try to tie all their subplots together with a unifying theme, but it’s seldom this successful.

Weaknesses

  • Thickly applied 90s nostalgia. I’m half-convinced this is why the show got greenlit in the first place. Much of VH1’s programming is still tangentially music related and it is all immersed in pop culture, so I bet they were hoping that viewers would come for the endless parade of eminently licensable 90s favorites and 90210 references and stay for Hindsight’s many charming qualities. Though it got toned down a touch, the constant Rhino-grade musical cues felt assaultive. In a historical drama that’s much more concerned with the psychology of its characters than with historicity, we’re beaten over the head with the 90s-ness of it all thanks to Montell Jordan, Collective Soul, The Gin Blossoms, Deep Blue Something and both goddamned Spin Doctors songs. The actual good music of 1995 from folks like Oasis, Radiohead, The Smashing Pumpkins, 2Pac, PJ Harvey and Bjork proved too expensive for deep cable, I suppose. This episode manages to keep its worse instincts mostly in check, partially through more high-quality offerings from R.E.M. and a concession to the fact that the 90s didn’t exist in a historical bubble via “September Gurls” and the inevitable road trip anthem “Life Is A Highway,” though no one will ever use that song more deftly than The Office. I’m not sure this makes up for Becca eyeing the Spring Lake exit while Del Amitri enjoins her to “look into your heart, pretty baby/Is it aching with some nameless need?” Woof. On the other hand, I could forgive a lot solely for this episode’s use of the melancholy “Nightswimming” over its tragic final scenes, as Becca waits alone and puzzled at the beautiful lake house.

I’m going to break the format a little and present some meta-analysis of the shows we’ve covered so far. I have two observations. The first was inspired by Hindsight: the three fundamentals of a good story, regardless of genre or tropes, are the three strengths discussed here: plot, characters and themes. Other things matter–style, execution, performances. But if a show can deliver the big three, chances are I’m going to be satisfied. Of course, as we’ve seen, it’s something of a tall order…

The other point I have is that I found myself thinking recently about The Sims 2. In that game, Sims have a set motivation that guides their wants, desires and fears throughout life. It’s occurred to me that the motivation of characters in every story corresponds to one of the five aspirations from The Sims 2, with one addition. Hindsight manages to motivate Becca with five of the six. Let’s review–Love/Sex/Romance. Becca has to decide between a relationship with Sean, Andy or neither. Money/Work. Becca is weighed down by a dead-end job and a demanding boss for 20 years, so she very quickly quits that job and embarks on a new career as a journalist. Family. Becca wants to prevent her brother from becoming a drug addict, and in the first episode, it’s implied that she’ll also try and save her parents’ magic. Maybe if there had been a season 2…Friends/Popularity. As mentioned, Becca’s greatest regret is losing Lolly as a friend. Perhaps the most interesting motivation is Knowledge/Self-discovery. By returning to the past and making new decisions, Becca is trying to reshape her life to become the person she wants to be.

The sixth motivation occurred to me while thinking about the plot of the Paddington episode I reviewed, of all things. Paddington isn’t motivated by any of that–he just wants to buy some pajamas, eat a marmalade sandwich and take a nap. That’s a bit farther down on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Hence we have the Survival motivation. This accounts for not only Paddington but also Ripley aboard the Nostromo, as well as things like the episode of Seinfeld with the Chinese restaurant. A survival narrative can just involve trying to get through the day.  

Let’s classify the shows that have been reviewed so far and see if a pattern emerges:

  • The Monsters We Met. Well, this is nonfiction, so it’s more or less guaranteed to be motivated by the promised knowledge of prehistory.
  • So Little Time. This is a tough case, since it was a shitty clip show with no story. We did get large chunks of storyline about the teen protagonists, however, and it all had to do with their love lives. Romance.
  • Comic Book Men. Since it’s a show about running a small business, money/work comes to mind. This episode is also about a bunch of bros pressuring each other to get tattoos, so friendship comes into play, as well.
  • Dead Like Me. George, much like Becca, is placed in the unenviable position of having to decide who she wants to be when confronted with an embarrassment of options. Knowledge/self-discovery.
  • Lupin the III. Lupin’s in it for the $$$. Money.
  • The Wrong Mans. In the superior first season, it’s a story about survival and self-discovery. In the crappy episode I watched, however, the characters are motivated by lurrrrve and family.
  • Paddington. As mentioned, survival.
  • Major Crimes. Procedurals are almost always a quest for knowledge, since a murder needs to be solved. There’s also the inciting issue behind the crimes, which is money here and in NCIS.
  • Danny Phantom. You could make a case for this being a survival narrative, but Danny’s survival isn’t actually in question. What is in question is his very identity, making this a quest for self-discovery.
  • Early Edition. The deadly plastic surgery is motivated by romance, but the protagonist’s actions are spurred by his unnatural knowledge of events yet to transpire. When used this way, the typical quest for knowledge is inverted–the problem is the character has knowledge and must act on it. I suppose this is the motivation for Janice in that NCIS episode as well.
  • Alcatraz. Knowledge, of course! What’s going on with the reappearing Alcatraz prisoners?! WE MAY NEVER KNOW
  • NCIS. As mentioned, the Crimebros seek knowledge about the murder, Celodyne faked safety data because they were greedy for money and Janice uses that knowledge to strike out at them. None of this would have happened without Celodyne’s lust for profits, though, so I’m going with The Weeknd on this. 
  • Hindsight. As mentioned, this show manages to cover all five top-level needs. 

Obviously, it’s a nifty and promising trick to cover so many bases in one story. I wonder if there should be a brighter line of delineation between knowledge and self-discovery, since I notice that I particularly enjoy stories that include that component, such as Dead Like Me or The Wrong Mans, whereas I don’t care so much about a general “we need to know the thing” type knowledge-quest. Phantom is great evidence of how thoroughly you can ruin a self-discovery narrative that could have been really interesting. I may keep track of this taxonomy as I review further shows.

Final Episode Judgment: 9/10. This is easily the best single episode I’ve covered for this project so far. I’d give the pilot an 8/10 and episode six a 7/10, but episode 3 was also very strong and deserves a 9/10 as well.

NEXT TIME: Another one-season wonder and our inaugural foray into sci-fi coverage, Space: Above and Beyond.

Case Study 13: Hindsight, Episode 5–“Then I’ll Know” (also some meta commentary)

Case Study 12: NCIS, Episode 287–“Lockdown”

Original Airdate: October 20th, 2015 on CBS

In stark contrast to the aggressively obscure fare we usually discuss here, in the 2014-2015 TV season NCIS was the top rated network drama. It’s the lynchpin of an expanding TV empire—in addition to two successful spin-offs set in different cities in the grand tradition of CSI, NCIS itself was a spinoff of the hit show JAG. The show neatly illustrates a few things about ratings in today’s crowded landscape—last year NCIS pulled a top rating of 18.2 million viewers. It was only outpaced by NBC Sunday night football, which netted 20.8 million viewers, and the loathsome Big Bang Theory, which drew 19 million. In contrast, for our next installment we’ll take a look at an episode of the hastily cancelled VH1 scripted series Hindsight. The episode in question aired in February of this year and was viewed by 280,000 viewers. So there’s a big gap between the peaks and the valleys and the valleys can be awfully deep. But consider the following: in 1987, all 20 of the top shows on television were more highly rated than NCIS. Kate & Allie got 18.3 million. Astonishingly, Nothing In Common got 19.6 million. I’m struggling to believe that fact, but zap2it is the only source I can find on TV ratings from nearly 30 years ago for some strange reason. Nothing lasted 7 episodes. It was based on a rightfully forgotten Garry Marshall movie of the same name starring Tom Hanks and Jackie Gleason, of all people. NBC cancelled the show. Despite the fact that they had given it a plum spot in the lineup right after the superhit Cheers, it wasn’t getting enough of the audience to leave their TV on. This only makes sense when you realize that Cheers was being watched by 27.5 million people. And Cheers wasn’t even on the top of the pile! That would be The Cosby Show, which was being seen by nearly 35 million people a week.

There are valid reasons for this numbers gulf. The idea of tentpole, consensus watercooler TV has shattered into millions of fragments. Now there’s theoretically something for everyone and space for seemingly everything. Even Star Trek is getting a new series, and it’s on a heretofore unlikely source of new television—CBS’s subscription-based streaming service. (Of course, the creator is Alex Kurtzman, JJ Abrams’ accomplice in crimes against Trek in the form of the newest wave of movies, but I’m still holding out hope as long as Bad Robot’s not involved.) Much has changed in these 30 years. In 1987, The Good Wife would have seemed like pure science fiction and Bill Cosby seemed like the best father figure you could ever want. But for 2015, NCIS remains the top dog. Can 18 million NCIS fans be wrong?

Strengths

  • The bones of a solid mystery/thriller. Any given police procedural is going to live or die on the basic thing it’s bringing to the table—the plot. This episode does a reasonably good job of delivering. It presents a twisty, unpredictable mystery that goes in unexpected directions and gives our heroes a run for their money. It’s plausible but not cliche and complex but not impenetrable. Of course, it’s not perfect—the modern police procedural generally has little interest in adhering to the ten commandments attributed to Raymond Chandler and Ronald Knox on how to write a mystery. The main reason for this is that NCIS and its fellows like to toss staples from the thriller genre into the mix, which is fine. I’m about to means test Chandler’s fifth commandment: “It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.” The time has come. Our dead guy du jour is Naval Reserve Captain Jeremy Doblin, a biochemist. He’s been smuggling botulinum out of his secure lab, but just as the viewer is girding her loins for a bioterrorism plotline, we learn that Doblin’s been turning it into Botox and selling it to Latvian plastic surgery enthusiasts. It would seem that Doblin had made the unwise decision of capitalizing a potential real estate investment with money from a loan shark, one Nicky Jones (Nick Gomez, Looper.) But Jones didn’t kill him—how would he get his money back then? Here the mystery finally delves into the heart of the episode. Our beloved plucky goth forensic technician Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette) has decided to get out of her basement office rut and go on a “field trip” to the office of Celodyne Pharmaceuticals to try and figure out why Doblin’s corpse was playing host to the base molecule of a generic drug imported by Celodyne and inexplicably separated from its active ingredient. And I do mean inexplicable, because the show points out this bizarre fact and emphasizes how impossible it is and then doesn’t offer any explanation whatsoever. The logic of the mystery begins to unravel here as we get thrust into the thriller half of this story. Abby makes friends with a chemist at Celodyne named Dr. Janice Brown (Lucy Davis, 2001’s The Office.) While Abby & Janice are bonding, a janitorial sleeper cell is activated at Celodyne and an Ebola containment lockdown facilitates hostage taking and gunplay and it’s up to Abby to save the day and her own skin. When all’s said and done, it turns out that Brown, Doblin and gun-wielding psychopath Travis Cook (Robert Neary, General Hospital) were in cahoots on a plan to steal data from Celodyne indicating that the company was falsifying safety data in order to sell a generic medicine that didn’t work. Leaving aside the fact that they’d also have to falsify efficacy data and the fact that this drug is explicitly said to be imported, which means Celodyne doesn’t have any kind of control over the already existing data, the Brown/Cook/Doblin conspiracy really doesn’t make sense. Doblin supposedly had occasion to do tests on this drug—why this would fall to a Navy biochemist, I have no idea—and brought his inflammatory findings to Brown. Somehow, Doblin’s research wasn’t sufficient to expose Celodyne, and Brown needed protected data to blow the whistle. Brown hired Cook to get the data. So did he hack into Celodyne’s mainframe? Of course not! He got a job as a janitor, bided his time, created a false Ebola containment alert, whipped out the AK and took hostages, whom he then intended to murder in cold blood along with a woman he knew to be a federal agent, all so he could access the computers from the inside. This is an incredibly messy and high-exposure operation, and Brown is paying Cook by letting him “take whatever he want[s].” And why was Doblin murdered, and by whom? Cook killed Doblin because he was “getting cold feet.” Uh, of course. Still, the mystery/thriller Frankenstein manages to scratch both itches and squeak out a net positive. It’s legitimately intriguing and entertaining to piece together Doblin’s bizarre fate and to watch Abby’s derring-do in the field. Which brings me to…
  • Pauley Perrette. Perrette stands out in a relatively lifeless cast here, which is only natural, since the episode is clearly meant to be a showcase for her. The script doesn’t actually give her much to work with and it ducks and feints away from many opportunities to tell her story in a more engaging way, but she acquits herself nicely here.
  • Pushing back against conservative tendencies in crime narrative. There are long-standing arguments over the political nature of crime and detective fiction. It’s been said that the genre is inherently conservative. It’s about restoring order, frequently through state action. It’s about assigning individual moral culpability to social problems. Shows as diverse as Law & Order: SVU, The Shield and 24 tell us that excessive force is something to be shied away from—except it gets results, so god bless those violent men who sacrifice their souls in the name of keeping us safe. I’m sure over the course of a decade and dozens of writers, NCIS on the whole has taken a variety of political positions, but this episode seems to be intent on finding ways to challenge that argument. I didn’t mention this in my review of Major Crimes, but it’s another example of a procedural in 2015 pushing back against this idea. The Major episode features Captain Raydor telling a key witness agonizing over the illogic of being deported from the only home he’s ever known and only getting to stay because of his tangential involvement in a murder and exposure to organized drug crime in his home country to get his priorities straight—namely, by realizing that “murder is not a political issue. It is the ultimate betrayal of human rights.” There’s some resonance there. There’s less resonance to a similar moment in this episode of NCIS, mainly because it’s dumped in our lap in the form of a flat-footed, speechifying monologue from Abby about an experience she had watching a movie in 5th grade and getting a scolding from her teacher for cheering when the good guy shot the bad guy. “We don’t applaud killing, no matter who it is. If you take a life today, you failed yesterday,” she says. Even though this is awkwardly shoehorned in, it’s a welcome corrective to a tendency in crime fiction that led to a pulpy thriller I recently read in which the admittedly odious villain is caught by the hero detective—and then summarily executed by the “hero,” who stages the scene to make it look like justifiable self-defense. And we’re supposed to cheer for the true justice that’s been meted out, regardless of what the libs in the state senate think about capital punishment. It’s also a welcome corrective to a real-world political environment where law enforcement thinks they can murder people with impunity and is brazen enough to call for boycotts and protests against public figures who call them out on it. This episode also timidly puts forth a sympathetic character who engages in extralegal political activism. For most of the episode, we’re led to believe that Janice is Celodyne’s version of Abby—a quirky STEM genius consigned to a basement office who is passionate about the environment and I guess government transparency—but then it turns out, no, Janice is in league with the bad guys! She’s also got a record of other crimes committed in the name of activism—NCIS crimebro Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly) sneers about Janice’s record ramming whaling boats in the Sea of Japan and chaining herself to trees in the Amazon as if these were the stupidest things he’s ever heard. Abby defends Janice and gets her treated lightly, saying that Janice did “the right thing for the wrong reasons.” Because of Janice’s statement, Celodyne CEO Virginia Wilson (Seana Kofoed, Men In Trees) is also punished, proving that NCIS is committed to Chandler’s 9th commandment. Hell, even the texting driver (Ally Maki, Geography Club) who discovers Doblin’s body gets a ticket.

Weaknesses

  • Wildly unneccessary attempts at comedy. I don’t think it’s too outlandish to suggest that the reason NCIS is so popular is because its viewers like well-constructed, twisty mysteries and thrillers that keep them on the edge of their seats, wondering what’s going to happen next. I really hope no one is coming back to NCIS week after week because of the lulzy, broad attempts at comedy from a cast and a writer’s room with no comedic chops. Those 18 million “comedy” fans are off watching Theory. You already have their attention, CBS. Relax. We’re subjected to snide one-liners and witless banter from the Latvian Botox-heads about which plastic surgeries the crimebros should undergo. We get to watch the cast struggle with physical comedy because their Flowers By Irene van is too small. Then there’s the snappy dialogue—when Timothy McGee (Sean Murray) comments on the fact that Doblin’s research into carbon-neutral alternative energy production is really interesting, DiNozzo fires back with, “Not really, McNerd.” Get it!? Because his name is McGee, and he cares about critical scientific research that could have major impacts on the future surivival of humanity?! So that makes him a nerd!?! And McNerd sounds like McGee?!?! Kind of?!?!?!?!?! Woof. Also, Doblin’s field is in fact “really interesting,” because why the fuck did a dude working on alternative energy have access to botulinum, and why was he analyzing generic anti-depressants? It’s almost like that line was shoved into the script to give everything a tangential connection to the Navy, or to bully viewers who might give the slightest shit about the scientific particulars of the nonsense to follow, or to make an extremely sad grab for a laugh, or all of those things. I could kind of understand this sub-Catskills level humor if it was intended to draw a contrast between just another wacky day at the NCIS office and the harrowing trial Abby is set to endure, but the laughs just keep on coming as Abby puzzles her way out of her situation. I suspect this is because the writer’s room is used to having Abby be comic relief—look at what happened when they tried to write a serious moment for her. For some reason, Abby has to provide running commentary when she’s alone about her efforts to thwart the gunmen. I guess this is because the viewers are presumed too stupid to be able to remember the fact that she needs to get to the phone and server equipment in the room occupied by the bad guys. But this has her risking being overheard and subsequently murdered so she can respond to Cook’s frustrated attempts to override the server with “Good luck, mortal!” Is that really worth the egregious suspension of disbelief that has to occur here? It’s also worth noting that at another point we see Abby sneaking down a hall singing a badly-written song parody to herself about the need for her to be quiet. Now, to be fair, Perrette gamely gives this material all she’s got and wrings as much humor from these clunkers as is possible—which is to say, a fleeting smile—but since this is a showcase for Perrette, why not let her do some serious acting? Why not let us see the fear and the tension and the anger? Why not save us the super-edgy Botox chuckles in favor of showing Abby and Janice doing some actual life-saving chemistry? Why why why.
  • Wooden performances from people not named Pauley Perrette. I mean, I get it. It’s been 13 long years. These people are being forced to do terrible comedy instead of the crime solving that everyone is here for. This ain’t exactly Masterpiece Theater and they’re still going to have a big pile of NCIS money regardless of how much they stink up the joint. But it doesn’t exactly make me want to come rushing back, especially with the depth of characterization going on. There’s a goth girl, because this is 1987. There’s a cranky and “lovably eccentric” Scottish medical examiner (David McCallum). There’s crimebros in Jock and McNerd varieties. There’s the slowly decaying corpse of a goose (Mark Harmon). There’s Ellie Bishop (Emily Wickersham), a blonde white lady in a turtleneck. The closest thing she gets to character work is a pointless interlude where she moans about how her boyfriend is always out of town, although “moans” might be overstating the case, since it sounds like she’s reading out of the operator’s manual of a 1992 Mazda.

Final Episode Judgment: 4/10. I vacillated a little on this. I was prepared to give it a 5 when I sat down to write the review, but when I had to actually put the plot down on paper I realized it made even less sense than I thought. But it was reasonably entertaining while it was happening. The thing is, a story should get better in retrospect—not worse.

NEXT TIME: As mentioned, VH1’s original scripted series Hindsight! *gulp*

Case Study 12: NCIS, Episode 287–“Lockdown”