Case Study 58: Limitless, Episode 5–“Personality Crisis”

Original Airdate: October 20th, 2015 on CBS

As you may or may not be aware, in the spring of 2011 there was a moderately well-received action blockbuster starring Bradley “No, I’m Not Ryan Gosling, Ryan Reynolds or One Of The Hemsworths” Cooper. In some quarters, it was received as a welcome breath of fresh air, since it was original IP in a mainstream movie marketplace glutted with sequels, remakes and reboots. (It wasn’t that original, though—it’s a loose adaptation of a novel.) Of course, the natural thing to do when you have a creative and fresh movie is to stretch its premise out into twenty-two episodes of TV. Despite its dubious origins, Limitless isn’t terrible. It shares the idea of a preternaturally talented and intelligent protagonist reluctantly collaborating with the FBI with Blacklist and it takes the notion of a thinly drawn high-concept sci-fi crime fighting mechanism from Person Of Interest, but it’s more fun and enjoyable than either of those shows, which are big hits in the world of crime procedurals. In light of that fact, CBS cancelled it after one season, because we can’t have nice things.

Strengths:

  • Compelling premise. Hey, if you’re going to go high-concept, you better have a good concept. For the most part, Limitless delivers, despite brazenly flying in the face of neurology. You see, the action here hinges on vagabond schlub Brian Finch (Jake McDorman) getting access to an experimental new drug called NZT, which unlocks “the hidden potential of the human brain.” They might as well have had him get zapped with a super-powered cosmic magic ray, because this is effectively a superpower. It makes him one of the smartest men on the planet, able to think 20 steps ahead, process information at light speed, recall anything perfectly and provide effective couples counseling. (I wish that last part was a joke.) This fantasy is especially compelling in an age of information overload. Even before the Internet, writers like Borges were imagining the insanity of trying to extract all the world’s knowledge from an infinite library. Who knows what good old Jorge would have said about Wikipedia? And the possibilities are especially, erm, limitless for CBS’ beloved crime procedural. Which leads me to…
  • Brian Finch. Brian’s a fun protagonist for a show like this, because he’s just a regular, goofy guy who plays guitar, cares about his family and friends and seems to have a weird thing for puppets. This is in marked contrast to protagonists like Sherlock Holmes or Law & Order: Criminal Intent’s Bobby Goren who appear to have, in D&D parlance, minmaxed: because they’re so preternaturally intelligent, they never learned how to interact normally with people and wind up being aloof, unrelatable assholes. Brian is genuinely likable partially due to the fact that every day the NZT wears off and he goes back to being “normal.” This isn’t to take some anti-intellectual posture where I valorize lowest-common denominator stupidity, because the crime procedural version of “smart” leads us to cartoon characters like Sherlock Holmes who bear no resemblance to actual, intelligent problem solving. When he’s high, Brian’s just as cartoonish, but at least we can chalk it up to the fact that he ingested a pill that looks like a contact lens.
  • Serviceable plot. This episode gives us an effective example of a high-quality plot for a crime procedural, which is to say that despite being fairly by the numbers it does what it’s there to do: it provides some fun crime-fighting texture and gives us an emotional hook. The FBI’s case du jour starts as a routine meth lab bust, but instead of drug dealers, they find a right-wing militia planning on building a dirty bomb. The emotional hook and the window into the case are provided by one Chris Garper (Derek Goh), the innocent younger brother of one of the terrorists. Brian establishes a rapport with him, but it develops that Brian will have to manipulate him into putting himself in harm’s way so the FBI can arrest his brother by implying that they’ll take it easy on the elder Garper, since Chris insists he’s not all that bad, dirty bomb notwithstanding. Of course, Chris gets killed and Brian is sad and it all ties into the larger story arc about Brian’s conflicted feelings regarding telling his partner the shocking truth about her father against the wishes of the shadowy overlords that give him a different mysterious drug that staves off the side effects of NZT. It’s convoluted but reasonably competent. But about that partner…

Weaknesses:

  • Jennifer Carpenter. Brian’s partner is Detective Rebecca Harris (Carpenter, Dexter.) As mentioned, she’s given a juicy if contrived backstory involving her father dying of NZT abuse after being part of a secret pilot program to test the drug, a fact the FBI concealed from Harris. As back stories go, it’s not exactly going to light the world on fire, but it’s better than nothing, and I’m sure other Limitless cast members like Hill Harper (CSI: NY) or Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Scarface) would make hay out of it. But Carpenter comes off like Acting Robot #12812. It turns out that she’s fine at spitting out lines about terrorists encrypting data via steganography but when it comes time for actual feelings she’s got jack squat. Her burgeoning romantic relationship with the FBI’s physical combat trainer Agent Casey Rooks (Desmond Harrington, Dexter, again) is none too promising.
  • Over-the-top graphics. Oof. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since this is the network that gave us CSI, the show famous for up-close-and-personal computer generated images of poison slowly spreading into someone’s liver or a bullet flying through a carotid artery. This might be helpful for visual learners, but the rest of us can just take your word for it. Limitless is all about cutesy-poo graphics that tell us what’s going on inside Brian’s head. When he tells Chris about how the FBI will rehabilitate his brother post-arrest, the lies he spins are shown to us in videos embedded in cartoon speech bubbles next to Brian’s head while he narrates, presumably because the writers didn’t feel like actually scripting the conversation. When Brian breaks surveillance etiquette by guzzling down too much cranberry juice, we’re given a jovial illustration of his overtaxed bladder. When he analyzes a computer screen full of phone numbers, they fly around his head in different colors. Look, if you think your show’s script is boring, work on the writing. Don’t try and flummox the viewer with a bunch of flashy visuals. It just makes it seem like you think the audience is stupid.

Final Judgment: 6/10. Limitless is charming enough that I’d watch more but not so charming that I’d recommend it to someone that isn’t a fan of crime procedurals to begin with. It doesn’t fully escape the aspects of the genre that have grown stale.

NEXT TIME: In a stunning development, I’m going to continue reviewing shows that are currently on the air and new for the 2015-2016 TV season (now that we’re a month away from the 2016-2017 season.) Come back next time to hear about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend!

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Case Study 58: Limitless, Episode 5–“Personality Crisis”

Case Study 57: Roobarb, Episode 18–“When Roobarb Did The Lion’s Share”

Original Airdate: January 18th, 1974 on BBC1

The most obvious point of reference for Roobarb in the Oryx Vault is Paddington: It’s another five-minute cartoon made by BBC in the 1970s to pad out the hour when other things ran short. But while one series is based on an iconic and beloved children’s book character, the other is about a badly drawn chartreuse dog with a misspelled name. (At least it makes him easy to Google.)

Strengths:

  • Cute. Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m hopelessly devoted to dogs. And, sure, Roobarb only bears an abstract resemblance to any actually existing dog. Sure, it does the same weird thing that Paddington does where all the narration and voices are done by one guy (Richard Briers, The Good Life) so Roobarb doesn’t sound particularly distinctive, despite Briers gamely putting on a silly voice. But, come on, a dog wearing a poorly assembled horse costume? I’m not made of stone, people!

Weaknesses:

  • Rock bottom production values. To say that Roobarb shares Paddington’s lo-fi aesthetic is to put it mildly. As mentioned, there’s only one voice actor, but that’s just the beginning. Everything is a shaky line drawing. The characters’ mouths don’t match up with the audio, and that’s when they move at all. At one point, Roobarb’s foil Custard observes Roobarb in a comically humiliating situation, and it’s not clear if he’s looking through a hole in a fence, coming around a corner on the side of the fence or walking through the gate of the fence, because they didn’t bother to colorize the backgrounds. And the theme song? Let’s just say it’s doesn’t rival “Spin It” from Talespin.
  • Story that goes absolutely nowhere. Here is the plot, such as it is: Roobarb encounters a sad lion. The lion is sad because he’s part of a circus and he’s lost. Roobarb tries to distract him from his woes by putting on an extremely shitty one-man circus. Then the real circus comes back, so the lion books. If you’re going to do a lazy circus thing, just have the characters go to the circus and have misadventures there. It turns out that watching someone attempt to be entertaining and fail is not, in fact, super entertaining on its own.

Final Judgment: 4/10. You know, if there’s one thing I’m learning here it’s that the vast majority of television doesn’t even try to rise out of the endless sea of grey mediocrity that floods every broadcast hour.

NEXT TIME: Hey, they made a TV show out of the movie Limitless, so that’s going to have to make up for the fact that I couldn’t find an extant copy of the Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure cartoon.

Case Study 57: Roobarb, Episode 18–“When Roobarb Did The Lion’s Share”

Case Study 56: The New Statesman, Episode 18–“Let Them Sniff Cake”

Original Airdate: January 20th, 1991 on ITV

Politics is an intriguing and underexposed subject for television shows, and the British have proven extremely adept at generating high-quality political fiction like Yes Prime Minister, The Thick Of It and The Politician’s Husband. But The New Statesman is something of an odd duck. In terms of political tv shows, the cheerfully scheming immorality of its characters reminds me of House of Cards, while its sense of humor calls to mind Married…With Children. If you think that sounds like a bizarre combination, you’d be absolutely right.

Strengths

  • Edgy. Shows like Married lay claim to edginess by wholeheartedly embracing vulgarity and coarseness, and shows like Game Of Thrones reach for the ever-popular audience of easily titillated man-children by stabbing pregnant women in the baby and chopping horses in half, but I can honestly say I’ve never seen a sitcom whose plot revolved around cocaine purchases and car bombs. Perhaps it’s because the British have more creative license than censorious Americans. I don’t want to make the mistake of identifying mere novelty as quality, but these elements are at the very least attention-getting.
  • Rik Mayall. The main character has the on-the-nose name of Alan B’Stard (Mayall, The Young Ones), which gives you an idea of the level of humor we’re dealing with here, but Mayall sells the material. He goes from preening cockiness to pitiful obsequiousness very smoothly, and he makes a cartoonishly evil character seem real. Given his obvious talent, it makes sense that he’d be offered the starring role in a sitcom in light of his work in cult classics like Young and The Comic Strip Presents.

Weaknesses

  • Three different flavors of unfunny. There’s always the risk when you’re mocking a conservative character that you’re inviting the viewer to laugh with their despicable comments about the world instead of laughing at them. Shows like this one, All In The Family, Will & Grace or South Park all have character-based jokes that embrace this ambiguity. It can be done well, but one important caveat remains salient. In the wake of controversies brought about by things like greasy sewer clot Daniel Tosh wishing rape on his hecklers and Jerry Seinfeld whining about how you damn college kids can’t take a joke, it’s important to remember that a big reason why shitty jokes about rape victims and gay people are shitty is not just because of their politics but because it’s also hack material. A creative comedian can respond to a female heckler with something other than rape threats, and a creative comedian can critique a fickle, callow youth culture without relying on tired gay stereotypes. So I’m not exactly inclined to roll in the aisles when B’Stard makes a joke about how women’s pussies smell weird, even if the joke could remotely be construed as being about his own sexual repression. Then there’s every first-grader’s favorite: bathroom humor! At one point B’Stard’s long-suffering office mate Piers Fletcher-Dervish (Michael Troughton) is doing toe touches while bemoaning a mung bean casserole he was compelled to eat, and of course he farts right in B’Stard’s face. Yeah, yeah, Shakespeare and Aristophanes both used fart jokes, but you’ll forgive me for not jumping off that particular bridge. The third cardinal sin of comedy on display here is one that makes a lot of sense in context but is still unlikely to whet the appetite of the contemporary viewer: extremely dated political humor. At one point, Alan is on the phone with Salman Rushdie, who is bemoaning his ill fortunes: “First The Satanic Verses, then you poured all your royalties into Polly Peck shares!” When was the last time you heard a good joke about Enron? Or how about this gem: when confronted with a £40,000 ransom to call off eco-terrorist attacks on his office, Alan exclaims “that’s more than John Major charges for a peerage!” This stuff may have seemed like cutting political commentary at the time, but it’ll have today’s viewers struggling to remember what was going on in the news in Britain back in the early 90s.

Final Judgment: 4/10. This show has potential, but a comedy can have a great cast and original ideas and it’s all worthless if it’s not funny.

NEXT TIME: I continue my coverage of the deep cuts of British television by reviewing the mid-seventies short-form cartoon Roobarb!

Case Study 56: The New Statesman, Episode 18–“Let Them Sniff Cake”

Case Study 55: TaleSpin, Episode 46–“Flight School Confidential”

Original Airdate: January 10th, 1991 on first-run syndication

Hey, a crappy kids’ cartoon that I remember from my actual childhood! The concept of Baloo (Ed Gilbert) from The Jungle Book delivering airmail was introduced on Disney’s first syndicated cartoon, DuckTales. DuckTales was enough of a hit for Disney that it launched a whole stable of early 90s syndicated animated programming for the studio. In addition to TaleSpin, my fellow snake people will probably remember Darkwing Duck and Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers. DuckTales also triggered a boom in innovative afternoon cartoons, demonstrating to studios like Warners Brothers and Fox that there was money to be made in developing high-quality animated fare like The Animaniacs or Batman: The Animated Series. It also led to a lot of garbage. TaleSpin isn’t nearly that bad, but let’s just say revisiting it tarnished a few childhood memories.

Strengths

  • A strong, relatable premise. The hook of this episode’s plot is simple: Baloo’s 12 year old navigator and apprentice Kit (R.J. Williams, Wake, Rattle and Roll) feels like he’s ready to fly a plane after extensive experience riding shotgun, but everyone thinks he’s way too young. Who hasn’t been in a position where they’ve been told they’re not old enough to do something they feel confident they can handle? Ultimately, this episode is about the relationship between Kit and Baloo, but as you’ll see, we get distracted by a whole different pile of much less compelling bullshit. If they had focused on that core relationship—on Kit trying to convince Baloo, on Baloo addressing his fears over Kit’s independence, on Kit trying to win Baloo’s trust in spite of his naturally unhinged inclinations—it could have been a great story.

Weaknesses

  • Jingoistic bullshit. Hey, you know what this kids’ show about a sloth bear flying a cargo plane needs? Cold War geopolitics! Much of this episode takes place in Thembria, which is populated by a bunch of authoritarian warthogs with cheesy Russian accents. Thembria is characterized by incompetent militarism, tyrannical rulers and austere radish-centric cuisine. Was any of this necessary? It was 1991. The Wall came down, guys. You won. Maybe there was a fear that this state of affairs was tenuous and we still needed to indoctrinate our children with unthinking contempt for commies. I don’t know. As it stands, it makes a godawful mess out of the plot. We go from Kit chafing under Baloo’s authority to Kit chafing under the authority of a bunch of Thembrians we’ll never see again to him getting rescued by Baloo. So is he going to teach Kit to fly, then? No. “You’ll make a great pilot someday,” he says. Kit is mollified. So the moral here is do what Baloo says or you’ll fly your plane into a mountain and die a fiery death in a foreign country. GREAT STORY BRO
  • Kit. I wanted to relate to Kit so badly. But there’s a difference between being prevented from doing something you know how to do based on arbitrary ageism and being cocky and stupid. Every time the kid tries to fly a plane it ends in a disaster. In the opening scenes, he crashes Baloo’s plane into some rocks. He steals a plane from the Thembrians under the cover of darkness, never manages to close the landing gear and crashes it into a wall. In the grand finale he takes control of a plane yet again and nearly runs into a goddamned mountain. And I get that he’s rebelling against the authority of the adults and/or the Soviet government, but it would have made for a better story if he tried to work with that authority instead of against it, since he’s clearly not equipped to do the latter with any kind of competence or affability.

Final Judgment: 4/10. Mostly inoffensive and not actively stupid, TaleSpin clears a lot of the low bars set by the children’s programming previously discussed here, but it hardly rises to the level of anything I’d actually recommend. By the way, I never thought I’d compliment Angelina Ballerina, but at least their Russia stand-in isn’t straight out of a fucking propaganda poster.

NEXT TIME: I cover the British political sitcom The New Statesman!

Case Study 55: TaleSpin, Episode 46–“Flight School Confidential”

Case Study 54: Roswell, Episode 22–“Destiny”

Original Airdate: May 15th, 2000 on The WB

Over the last couple of decades, TV shows about teenagers dealing with the supernatural have proved a reliable source of ratings and dedicated fans. In addition to The Vampire Diaries, we’ve seen titles as varied as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Supernatural and Teen Wolf explore their characters’ angst via cheesy monster makeup. Roswell wasn’t quite as successful as these shows—it only made it three seasons before going back to its home planet and dying along the way—but it definitely followed the same formula, and much like Diaries, its consistency varies sharply from episode to episode. I watched six episodes from the first season for this review.

Strengths

  • Action thrills. “Destiny” is the exciting climax to season 1, so it’s not surprising that there’d be some thrills, spills and bellyaches. There’s car chases. There’s shootouts. Our two leads jump what looks like 20 feet into a reservoir to evade bloodthirsty FBI agents. It’s all very stimulating, if you’re into that sort of thing.
  • Liz & Max. Roswell’s protagonist is the all-American girl next door Liz Parker (Shiri Appleby, Unreal.) The heart of the show is her ill-starred relationship with undercover alien Max Evans (Jason Behr.) The viewers would be doomed to scene after boring scene of these two making ineffectual goo-eyes if there wasn’t chemistry here, but thankfully they seem like a very real couple with years of history and charged sexual tension. Behr’s performance in particular is very low-key and understated, but instead of seeming wooden he radiates an alluring calm and confidence even in times of ridiculously heightened conflict and drama. His performance affirms an unearthly nature that you’d expect to find in an alien, and it offers a startling contrast with Appleby’s confusion and vulnerability. This episode is particularly momentous for their relationship, as well. The happy couple are presented with mounting evidence that Max’s destiny lies in a relationship with his fellow alien, Tess Harding (Emile de Ravin, Once Upon A Time.) Early in the episode, Max assures Liz of the profundity of his love for her, telling her that she was the only thing giving him strength and perseverance when the FBI was torturing him in the previous episode. The dialogue doesn’t read like much on the page, but the chemistry between the actors really sells it. The effect is doubled at the episode’s end when the characters finally figure out how to activate a message from their alien relatives and Max’s long-lost alien mother (Genie Francis, General Hospital) confirms that Tess is fated to be Max’s bride. As Liz tearfully walks away from Max, the emotional impact is real and persuasive. It makes for a very satisfying cliffhanger.
  • Alien superpowers. Did I mention that the aliens can disable vehicles at 50 feet, induce hallucinations in hapless FBI agents and change the molecular structure of doorknobs? They can totally do those things, and it’s awesome. Giving the aliens weird powers spices things up, because there’s only so much you can do with canonical aliens evading detection. It gives them a meaningful way to defend themselves against hostile humans without completely sacrificing their human “identity” and therefore their relatability.
  • A well-executed double/triple-cross. Ah, there’s nothing quite like a scheme. In this episode, the aliens are finally able to neutralize the threat posed by zealous FBI crusader Agent Pierce (David Conrad, Ghost Whisperer.) To do this, they need to develop the perfect plan and marshall all their allies and powers. The key player in all this is Sheriff Jim Valenti (William Sadler, The Shawshank Redemption.) Over the course of the season, Valenti had been an ambiguous factor for the aliens. He doggedly investigated them and created a constant atmosphere of paranoia, but he also resented federal overreach when the FBI started their own investigations, even when his own investigations depended on intelligence from the Feds. By the time Max is kidnapped by the FBI, Liz is desperate enough to place complete faith in Valenti, but that faith is put to the test when it’s time to finally take action against Pierce in this episode. The show goes in for the good old-fashioned double/triple-cross—at first it seems like Valenti was only playing along with the aliens so that he could lead them to Pierce, and this would make a certain amount of sense. Valenti’s father was a dedicated alien conspiracy theorist drawn to Roswell for the obvious reasons, and Valenti’s initial passion is fueled by the desire to prove his father right. It’s also reasonable to assume that his allegiances would lie with his own species, especially since rogue alien Nasedo (Jim Ortlieb, Flatliners) is going around killing people. But, no—it turns out that Valenti was on the right side all along as he helps the aliens capture Pierce. This makes sense too: Pierce is a big fan of using extrajudicial force on innocent teenage civilians. The key to a successful triple-cross is plausibility. There has to be sufficient motivation and ambiguity around a character to make the viewer believe a double-cross could really happen, and it worked here for me thanks to the residual mistrust built up around Valenti over the course of the season. Here’s a great example of the power of serialized storytelling on television. By creating a whole roster of episodes where Valenti is on various sides of an allegiance, there’s an elegant aura of instability around the character’s motivations that would be very difficult to achieve in a screenplay.
  • Comeuppance. As mentioned, a huge chunk of the previous episode was centered on lengthy torture and interrogation sequences. Now the tables are turned, and Max has complete power over Pierce’s fate. The show underscores this by having Max repeat some of Pierce’s intimidating spiel verbatim. It’s a bit of a hack move, but it’s still effective, and it was very satisfying when Pierce finally got killed.
  • An exciting set-up for next season. In addition to the aforementioned romantic strife, the grand finale also offers an exciting glimpse into the plot of season two. Max’s mother’s message tells the aliens that a great and evil enemy has pursued them to Earth and that they may not be able to identify the enemies until it’s too late. All of a sudden, the FBI is the least of their problems. What’s more, activating the message also alerts unknown agents all over the country, as showcased in a chilling closing montage. If I were a fan of this show, it’d definitely make me want to come back for more.

Weaknesses

  • Slo-mo. Ugh. Don’t do this. It never looks cool. It’s never exciting. It only underlines the paucity of any given action sequence or dramatic moment if it has to be slowed down to make it seem important or interesting. You’re better than this, Roswell.
  • Contrivance and artificial tension. Whoa, it sure is a happy coincidence that Valenti stumbles on Liz and Max just as they’re about to be captured by the pursuing FBI agents, and it’s an even happier coincidence that Valenti brought along the alien Michael Guerin (Brendan Fehr,) and it’s the happiest coincidence of all that it’s only then that Michael discovers his magical ability to disable vehicles. Also dumb: an argument among the aliens about whether they’ll stay in Roswell or go on the lam and settle down somewhere else. It turns out this show is called Roswell, not Schenectady, and there’s no way in hell they’re skipping town. Why bother pretending like that was ever a serious option?
  • David Conrad. Pierce is supposed to be menacing, authoritarian man made into a monster by his unrelenting pursuit of alien justice. Instead, he comes across like a smarmy milquetoast. The contrast is dazzling. Pierce is the main antagonist of the season, but he’s not believable for a second.
  • Native American mysticism. I’ve written in the past about the unpleasant tendency in media to exoticize Asians, but this is a phenomena that can affect all people of color. Another prominent example is the frequent othering of Native Americans, especially around areas of religion and spirituality. It’s possible for anyone who’s not Christian to be a victim of this kind of flimflam, but the wide variety of unfamiliar religious traditions practiced by hundreds of Native tribes leads to, at best, a messy syncretism in white media. You also probably know I’m not a super big fan of using people of subaltern identities as plot devices for the betterment of the white, straight, able-bodied characters. Both of these sins are on display here: our alien pals resurrect Nasedo with magical Indian healing stones, dispensed over the course of a trilogy of painful episodes set to generic mournful flute music. At least it wasn’t as painful as when the X-Files did it…multiple times across several seasons. Sigh.
  • Michael & Maria. So some genius decided that since Max & Liz work so well, we need to pair off the other four main characters. Thankfully, the romance between Alex (Colin Hanks, Fargo) and Isabel (Katherine Heigl, Grey’s Anatomy) takes up a scanty amount of screen time in the episodes I watched. I wish I could say the same about the subplot between Michael and Maria (Majandra Delfino.) You see, Max & Liz are a perfect fit for one another, so we’re given a ham-handed contrast in the form of a fire & ice pairing. The actors are good at convincing me that they dislike each other, but the sparks are decidedly artificial. I could buy that they’d hook up once to hate fuck, but the tepid drama of the on-again/off-again romance on display here is the stuff of an exhausted writer’s room.

Final Judgment: 5/10. When all’s said and done, there’s a lot to like about Roswell, but you have to put up with a lot of crap to get there. Besides that, the sci-fi elements and the soapy teenybopper fare will put enough people off in equal measure that I doubt it’s on the top of anyone’s list. I will say that some of the episodes I watched were quite good—the show generally does better when its sense of humor shows through.

NEXT TIME: Yes, it’s another kid’s show—but it’s one I remember from my own youth! Check back next week to hear about Talespin!

Case Study 54: Roswell, Episode 22–“Destiny”