Case Study 83: 21 Jump Street, Episode 90–“Diplomas for Sale”

Original Airdate: December 8th, 1990 on Fox

Much like Mission: Impossible, 21 Jump Street was a TV show that made the jump to theaters decades after edifying the nation over the airwaves. The movies are fresh in the minds of the public while neither show is on Netflix. That’s important, because these days if you want to get into the zeitgeist on a streaming platform, Netflix is far and away the preferred option, with 75% of streaming customers in the US having a subscription. Jump is on Hulu, which enjoys a pitiful 17% of the market. Impossible is on CBS All Access, and that’s just too sad to talk about. Anyway, no one gives a shit about the original 21 Jump Street TV show now, but at the time it helped a burgeoning network establish itself with some of the members of their target demographic that don’t enjoy hooting at Christina Applegate. Is it worth revisiting? Look down. Does it say “Strengths” below this paragraph?

Weaknesses

  • Terrible acting from men in mullets. This cast of this show had a lot of churn for something that was only on the air for five seasons. Last time I promised you Johnny Depp (Edward Scissorhands) and I lied. Instead, you’ll have to settle for Michael Bendetti as Mac McCann. It’s okay, Benedetti’s cuter and wears less denim. Oh, and he probably doesn’t beat women. He’s also disappeared from the face of the earth, if his IMDb page is any indication. Which is a shame, because he’s not the problem here. That would be Peter and Michael DeLuise, who play goony brothers Doug and Joey Penhall, respectively. They’re obnoxious, their delivery is stilted and here they play undercover cops taking on an all-too-plausible assignment as frat jocks. Because there’s no justice in the world, they both went on to star in seaQuest DSV and Peter was on Stargate SG-1 and all good things in the world were sapped of energy and love.
  • The entire premise of this series is ridiculous and unrealistic. The people that write this show couldn’t even be bothered to set it in a real city, so it’s set in Metropolis. Yes, like Superman. I guess that tells you right there how much they care about realism, which immediately undercuts one of the more fundamental pleasures of a crime procedural. It gets worse, though. The idea behind the show is that the MPD has a special unit of youthful-looking cops who they use to secretly infiltrate the social circles of those rotten teenagers. At least, that was the idea originally. By this episode, everyone was so very tired that mission creep had set in and we lay our scene tonight at a college. Are crimes committed by the YA set so pernicious in Metropolis that there needs to be a special task force? Is this really the best use of everyone’s time and money? I suppose if it helps them solve murders…
  • Oh but wait, this individual episode is even stupider than that. So the death of one Steve Campbell (Noah Beggs, The Interview) instigates the events at hand, but it’s an accidental death. As in, not a murder. Well, but the accident happened right after a robbery! And it turns out Campbell had turned to a life of crime because he was being blackmailed! And he was being blackmailed because he had purchased a term paper and turned it in as his own work! That all adds up to something that should require five people ostentatiously wasting taxpayers’ money, right? At one point, the intrepid Captain Adam Fuller (Steven Williams) counsels his team that while plagiarism is a crime, selling gently used essays isn’t. Except there’s one problem: plagiarism isn’t a crime! Look, I realize it’s TV and I’m willing to forgive a certain level of enhancement but I really feel like “knowing what is a crime” is a bread-and-butter prerequisite for a show about crime-fighting.
  • And who the fuck cares about essay mills and academic dishonesty? I’m not saying they could never be an intriguing plot element, but they’re definitely not intrinsically interesting and you know that Jump isn’t doing anything unique with this material. Although there is one amusing bit—since this is before all 270 million Americans were waist-deep in AOL CDs, the essay mill has an actual brick and mortar location! McCann easily gets a job there, because that’s clearly how the world works. And the plot grinds on, having left us here.
  • But really there’s only maaaaaybe 20 minutes of plot, so we’ve got to pad this shit out. Two guys leave the essay store and McCann and Sgt. Judy Hoffs (Holly Robinson, Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper) are supposed to each take a guy and follow them, which was a dumb plan from the start because McCann’s also supposed to be working the store, but whatever. He’s locking the door behind him when he’s waylaid by sexy blackmail victim Melinda Cross (Venus Terzo, X-Men: Evolution.) The tail is botched! Are there any real consequences for any of this? Nope? We were just filling out the hour? Later, the cops set up a sting where one of the mullets buys and hands in a phony term paper. He’s contacted by the blackmailer. They do the whole “leave a paper bag full of money beneath a park bench” thing. And instead some other dude sees a paper bag full of money, goes to take it and gets arrested. The story continues to go absolutely nowhere. I get that there are dead ends in police investigations, but I don’t know if that needs to be dramatized quite so extensively. In fact, I really don’t think the director (Randy Bradshaw, The Song Spinner) is asking himself  “How can we show the audience that cops need to try a few things before being able to close a case?” It’s probably something more along the lines of “How many more episodes of this crap do I have to shoot before we get syndicated?”
  • They assume the audience is stupid. Oh, god, I can’t believe there’s more. We reach our putative climax as McCann lurks in Cross’s closet, waiting for the blackmailer to arrive. He knocks. Cross opens the door. The blackmailer proceeds to announce, “That’s right! Gary Austin! The store manager!” I realize that the preceding 35 minutes had been eminently forgettable, but the bad guy (Cameron Mitchell Jr., Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days) doesn’t need to smugly declare his name and profession to help guide the slower audience members along.
  • A dumb closing scene to top it all off. Hoffs realizes she hasn’t had anything to do for the entire episode and goes to visit the storefront one last time, where she suggests that the owner (Alex Bruhanski, Bird on a Wire) get a cup of coffee with her so she can convince him to change his evil ways. He brushes her off and she’s says that at least she can sleep at night. And that works! He goes with her and has coffee! In what universe does a cliched lecture from a stern law enforcement officer convince a morally wayward adult to give up on a remunerative life of non-crime?  That’s the world of Metropolis, baby!

Final Episode Judgment: 0/10. Do you a remember a time before Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Sopranos when sophisticated urbanites sneered at anyone who owned a television because they assumed it was full of vacuous nonsense with no substance? This is why.

NEXT TIME: Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hassenfeffer Incorporated! That’s right, baby–Laverne & Shirley! I don’t know why I’m so excited, but anything’s gotta be better than this.

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Case Study 83: 21 Jump Street, Episode 90–“Diplomas for Sale”

Case Study 82: Mission: Impossible (1966), Episode 106–“Flip Side”

Original Airdate: September 26th, 1970 on CBS

Those of you born after the turn of the century may be surprised to learn that before it was a series of action movies starring a closeted Scientologist, Mission: Impossible was a long-running crime procedural. Much like La Femme Nikita, it deals with the activities of a vaguely defined governmental crime-fighting agency. Our heroes work for the “Impossible Missions Force.” Before you ask, yes, the International Monetary Fund did exist in the sixties, but I guess globalization wasn’t on the radar of the nice people at Desilu. No, the geopolitical crisis of the moment was the Cold War, and while many episodes of Mission immerse themselves in that milieu, tonight’s episode is a treatise on the scourge of illegal drugs.

Strengths

  • The best title sequence of the 1960s.  Sure, Green Acres may have land spreadin’ out so far and wide, but you can’t deny that the Mission theme song is quintessentially exciting and suspenseful. Even if you’ve never seen the show, Lalo Schifrin’s iconic opener sounds perfect for espionage adventures. There’s a reason he had such a long and successful career. The score in general is everything you’d want in TV music and makes the show feel very crisp and modern. It gets out of the way when it’s not needed and it subtly raises the emotional stakes when things start to heat up. This is a solid ground game and it makes the viewer feel like they’re in good hands.
  • Compelling concept. As the title suggests, every week the IMF has to handle a seemingly impossible mission. When the rest of law enforcement has thrown up their hands, Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) gets a self-destructing audio tape giving him some Herculean assignment. It’s up to him and his operatives to figure out how to solve the problem, and inevitably this involves going undercover, sneaking around and scheming. And I love a good scheme.
  • Complex. Something like NCIS pads out the hour with incoherent plot twists and innumerable narrative blind alleys. Mission sets itself apart by presenting us with a scenario that is satisfying complex while still being a unified whole. Here, the IMF are trying to take down not one scuzzy drug dealer but three. C.W. Cameron (Dana Elcar, MacGyver) is a titan of industry legally manufacturing delicious, intoxicating pills in St. Louis. He exports his pills across the Mexican border to Diego Maximilian (the decidedly non-Mexican Robert Alda, Imitation of Life). Maximilian turns around and smuggles the drugs back across the border to kingpin/record producer Mel Bracken (Sal Mineo, Rebel Without a Cause.) Taking down all three of these jerks requires intricate, lovingly-designed skullduggery from our friends in the IMF. There’s plenty of room for a plot this byzantine to get weighed down by contrivance and bullshit, but miraculously it doesn’t happen.
  • Suspenseful. It’s always rewarding when a show pulls me out of my disinterested critical pose and gets me emotionally invested. I was genuinely fascinated by the question of whether or not the IMF could pull this off, even though I knew it was extremely unlikely that they’d totally fuck everything up and all the drug dealers would ride off into the sunset. That’s when you know you’re watching well-designed television. 99% of TV shows are deeply invested in maintaining their own status quo. For every Game of Thrones there’s 50 shows that definitely aren’t going to arbitrarily kill off main cast members. The genius happens when you know in the back of your mind that of course the Enterprise is going to get out of this one but you’re actually nervous anyway. Mission makes a hefty withdrawal from the Bank of Suspense by regularly using the time-honored classic of letting the viewer know there’s some big plan but not letting us hear the whispered plotting until it’s unfolding in front of us. It’s a cliche, but it’s naturally intriguing, and I was as surprised as anybody when Dana (Lesley Ann Warren, Victor/Victoria) faked an overdose. Of course, now you’ll be less surprised, but the statute of limitations on Mission: Impossible spoilers expired sometime around the Carter administration.

 
Weaknesses

  • Drug hysteria. We don’t need to look farther than America’s ever-widening Vicodin Belt to know that drugs can ruin lives, but we also don’t need primetime programming on CBS reinforcing tropes fresh out of Reefer Madness. The cold open is somewhat less than promising, as it features a drug-addled tricked out hippie girl overdosing on the floor of an overstated psychedelic dance club. Dana’s faux-verdose is intriguing from a narrative perspective but ridiculously over-the-top in the moment. And then there’s the oh-so-trenchant stinger at the end of the hour: it turns out the alter ego that Dana adopted in order to get into Cameron’s pants is an identity copped from some other lady that OD’d in a Summer-of-Love-induced revelry. You walk away with the distinct feeling that no one involved in the production of this program has ever taken anything stronger than a Benadryl. Even Leonard Nimoy won’t admit to it.
  • Lesley Ann Warren singing, for some reason. Yes, yes, she and Paris (Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek, doy) pose as a Marnie & Desi-esque singer/songwriter duo in order to infiltrate various shadowy underbellies. So there was going to be some singing. I’ll always have a spot in my heart for Warren thanks to Clue and her acting is credible if not award-worthy, but her singing leaves something to be desired, especially because it sounds like she’s improvising intentionally terrible songs. Random sample: “So take this flower that’s growing here/and always keep it very near/as proof this magic place is really real…”  Look, the time period offered fertile fields for self-important doggerel coming out of the mouths of earnest folk singers, but this makes “At Seventeen” look like Sonnet 17. I realize the people who made this decision are probably dead, but next time, license something. Yeesh.

 
Final Episode Judgment: 8/10. With a few cosmetic upgrades and a quick rewrite, this could easily serve as an installment of a high-end crime procedural on CBS today. Maybe that doesn’t speak well of the level of innovation happening at CBS, but Mission is surprisingly rewarding despite having aged about as well as Reaganomics.

NEXT TIME: I review the blissfully Channing-Tatum-free 21 Jump Street. Although it does have a young Johnny Depp, so you can’t win them all.

Case Study 82: Mission: Impossible (1966), Episode 106–“Flip Side”

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

Original Airdate: October 30th, 1978 on CBS

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

Strengths

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

Weaknesses

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

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

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

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

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

Original Airdate: March 20th, 2012 on CBS

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

Strengths

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

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

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

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

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

Case Study 67: Gotham, Episode 35–“A Dead Man Feels No Cold”

Original Airdate: March 7th, 2016 on FOX

Comic book superheroes have been filling airtime on your television since the 1960s, but the 21st century bore witness to an endless flurry of entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the concordant money blizzard meant that TV shows weren’t far behind. In Hollywood, there’s one thing that’s better than beating a dead horse, and that’s beating someone else’s dead horse, so Warner belatedly caught on and introduced us to their own “extended universe.” DC has been less vigilant about brand synergy, so Gotham kinda-sorta stands on its own, disregarding the fact that it’s soaked and dripping with Batman intellectual property jizz. Between 2012 and today, a whopping total of 10 MCU/DCEU properties have darkened our screens, and that’s not including shows based on comics from DC’s Vertigo imprint, like iZombie, Preacher, and Lucifer. Really, the impressive thing is that I went through 66 other shows before arriving at the groaning board of comic book grimdark that made action movies (temporarily) obsolete.

Strengths

  • Impressive special effects. It’s nice to live in an era where the special effects necessary for a vaguely supernatural action-adventure crime procedural don’t reduce the viewer to Manimal-grade fits of hysterics. The nice people behind Gotham are quickly digging through their supply of famous Batman villains, which I’m sure will lead to an excellent confrontation with Calendar Man in season 7. Tonight’s offering, along with its immediate predecessor, tells us the sad tale of the rise and fall of Mr. Freeze, aka Victor Fries (Nathan Darrow, House of Cards.) And where would Mr. Freeze be without blasts of icy death? Gotham’s finest stumble upon a victim who was shooting his gun mid-freeze, and the bullet is captured mid-air like an icicle emerging from the gun. At one point Fries throws an ice grenade into the For-All-Intents-And-Purposes East River, and the instantaneous appearance of giant icy spikes is very satisfying. The show doesn’t waste all its industrial light & magic on Freeze, either—Oswald “Penguin” Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) is briefly subjected to questionable mad-science based therapy and some fun color filters and deft camera-work does a lot of heavy lifting on behalf of the audience’s atrophied imagination.
  • Strong ensemble cast. Taylor’s Penguin is the real discovery here, and his range is fantastic—mincing, brooding, menacing, sycophantic and downright maniacal—but the cast is almost exclusively (see below) excellent. I can never get enough Donal Logue (Ghost Rider) and he inhabits the role of the Bad Cop nicely. B.D. Wong (Jurassic World) is delightful as the cartoonishly fiendish Hugo Strange. Erin Richards does well as Barbara Kean in what could have been a very dull role, although in this episode she’s in a coma, so it’s not going to show up on the sizzle reel. You may also have heard about how Jada Pinkett Smith made an enormous splash as Fish Mooney in season one, so, yeah, the casting directors know what they’re doing. For the most part.
  • Atmospheric. At least 50% of any given Batman narrative is nailing the feel of Gotham City and environs. It’s a caricature of the most forbidding parts of New York in particular and the urban experience in general. It’s outrageous wealth and intimidating architecture. You get the sense that the show understands this even in its stock transition shots, which swoop across the forbidding skyline. Arkham Asylum is an experience unto itself, a total institution straight out of the nineteenth century and packed to the gills with colorful sociopaths. Once again, Gotham gets it right—the sets, the lighting, the classic jailbird outfits. The bat cave is also everything you’d want in a bat cave—stalactites, mysterious water source, late Victorian lighting fixtures and all the trimmings of a research laboratory perfect for a weirdo who hangs out in a cave under his mansion.  
  • Making the best out of a tired Mr. Freeze story. The way the show handles Freeze is something of a disappointment. Every other villain you’d care to name gets a unique origin story—Penguin, The Riddler (Cory Michael Smith), Catwoman (Camren Bicondova), Poison Ivy (Clare Foley, Sinister). What does Mr. Freeze get? Dying wife, same as in town. Why reinvent the canon everywhere but here? Tip: If for some reason you’re trying to bring Mr. Freeze back into the public consciousness of people who don’t read comic books, the last thing you want is to remind anyone of Batman & Robin. At least they managed to resist ice-related puns. This episode has a fun twist, though—Victor’s long-suffering wife Nora (Kristen Hager, Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem) decides she’s had enough of her husband’s crime spree and her own terminal illness and kills herself with Victor’s own defective cryogenic solution. I’m choosing to interpret this as a political victory for the death with dignity movement.

Weaknesses

  • Bruce Wayne. Here’s another tip. Thinking about using child actors? Think again, motherfucker. It’s not really actor David Mazouz’s fault—the least interesting thing about any Batman story is Batman himself, and I assume Bruce’s flat affect and critical lack of a personality is as written. The thing is, this story is about the world of Batman before Batman is a major player on the scene. I would be thrilled if Bruce was featured only occasionally and when absolutely necessary. He is not necessary here.
  • Gordon. And while we’re at it, there’s a major exception to the praise I’ve doled out for the casting on this show. Ben McKenzie’s Gordon has the charisma of a deck of beige paint samples, which would be okay if he were a minor character. Instead, he’s the main event. This isn’t the first network drama to have a painfully bland white man holding down the top billing—I see you, Lost—and God knows it won’t be the last. It does take the wind out of the sails for many of the storylines, though. I know I’m supposed to care about Gordon’s slow descent into the dark side. I understand how Gordon and his lover, Leslie (Morena Baccarin, Deadpool) are meant to form a thematic pair with the Frieses. I remain unmoved.
  • Contrivance. The big set piece in this episode entails Freeze taking Arkham by storm to rescue Nora. Why is Nora there? Oh, because the cops decided that they couldn’t secure a room in a regular hospital or at the police station, so clearly the best thing to do was to take her to a prison for the criminally insane. This yields dividends—seeds are planted for the ongoing relationship between Strange and Freeze, Gordon is forced to come face to face with Penguin after letting Penguin take the fall for a murder they were both involved in—but it feels pretty cheap since the whole reason all the characters came to Arkham in the first place was complete fucking nonsense.

Final Judgment: 6/10. The media landscape is saturated with superheroes right now, and DC is as usual behind the eight ball, but based on what I’ve seen of the rest of their TV shows, Gotham might be the best of a bad lot. Team Marvel for the win.

NEXT TIME: Hey, it’s been a little over a year since I reviewed The Wrong Mans, so in honor of that I’ll review another British buddy comedy: Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere.

Case Study 67: Gotham, Episode 35–“A Dead Man Feels No Cold”

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!

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

Case Study 26: Gracepoint–“Episode One”

Original Airdate: October 2nd, 2014 on FOX

Adaptations are a tricky business. On the one hand, directors and writers need to honor the source text and thereby please the fans that were a built-in audience from day one. On the other hand, the creators have to reckon with the fact that they’re making something new. Often they’re telling the story in an entirely different medium with its own uniques strengths and demands. In this case the medium stays the same but the audience is different. Gracepoint is the American adaptation of a successful British crime drama by the name of Broadchurch. Technically, Gracepoint is only intended to be an adaptation of Broadchurch’s first season and was promoted by the network as a “limited series,” which I guess is a fancier way of saying “miniseries?” So what works about Gracepoint and what doesn’t? I’m so glad you asked.

Strengths

  • Compelling plot. Gracepoint is the kind of television mystery that I enjoy the most. Instead of shoehorning the entire thing into 42 minutes, Gracepoint tells the story of a complex, twisting investigation over the course of 10 episodes. This is a great sign for any mystery fan, because it signals a satisfying level of depth you just can’t get in the glut of police procedurals out there. This is why Mystery! has been on the air for 36 years. Well, that and wildly unrestrained Anglophilia. This episode closes with a montage of various Gracepoint residents listening to Det. Emmett Carver (David Tennant, Doctor Who) give a press conference on the status of the case, and in addition to being in various positions of centrality or periphery to the life of the close-knit community, all these citizens are also suspects in the death of 12 year old Danny Solano. Over the course of the season, all their tawdry secrets are brought to the surface–adultery, past crimes, drug addiction, assumed identities, you name it. While watching Broadchurch, I had immense fun guessing at everyone’s role in the story, even up to the last episode.
  • Well-drawn characters. If Gracepoint is anything like Broadchurch–and it’s almost exactly the same–many of those townspeople come into view as fully realized, believable characters. However, the heart of Gracepoint is the relationship between its two main characters, Carver and Det. Ellie Miller (Anna Gunn, Breaking Bad.) Carver has developed an angry, acerbic personality after a major failure on a prior case, but he’s a thoughtful, perceptive man using a standoffish personality as a defense mechanism. Miller had been in line for a promotion that was given to Carver, an outsider to the Gracepoint PD, and she enters the relationship with a pronounced bitterness towards him as a supervisor. She has a deep emotional investment in the welfare of the town and its citizens. What’s more, Danny was her son Tom’s (Jack Irvine) best friend. She’s competent and has a firm handle on the social topography of Gracepoint, but this is her first murder investigation and her close relationships with the suspects prove in some ways to be liabilities. She’s also completely unafraid to call Carver on his bullshit. The interplay between these two is the best part of a great show, and it’s made all the better by the fact that somehow the unlikely pairing makes for an effective crime-solving partnership.
  • Strong setting. This had better be the case in a show where the setting also provides the title, eh? The show does an excellent job of shining a light on the intricate dynamics of a claustrophobic island town and by the end we feel we’ve gleaned some of the same insights and knowledge possessed by a longtime resident like Miller. This feeling is assisted by the gorgeous beach cliffsides of British Columbia, where Gracepoint and practically every other show with outdoor locations on American television was filmed. Director James Strong also does an excellent job establishing the visual feel of the town.
  • Good acting, for the most part. Tennant reprises his role as Carver from Broadchurch, so it’s not surprising that he’s had a chance to get comfortable in the role, though his American accent is a bit risible. He and Gunn manage to recapture the great chemistry that Tennant had with Olivia Colman–it’s hard not to laugh when Miller takes a phone call in the restaurant where the two stopped for lunch only to look out the window to see Carver in the parking lot, holding up his watch and scowling at her. The other plum acting roles in the first episode go to Danny’s grieving parents. Virginia Kull absolutely nails the devastation of Beth Solano. The weak link would be the bafflingly famous Michael Peña (Shooter) who really phones it in as Mark Solano.
  • Establishing season-long thematics. It’s somewhat careworn territory, but Gracepoint/Broadchurch manage to breathe fresh air into the story of a tragedy exposing a million cracks in the facade of bucolic small town life. It underscores the fact that depravity, misery and cruelty aren’t the exclusive province of big cities. When Miller and Carver interview amateur marine biology enthusiast Jack Reinhold (Nick Nolte, The Thin Red Line) and Reinhold proceeds to regale them with facts about whale migration, he’s surprised by Carver’s indifference. Miller apologetically explains that he’s from the city, to which Reinhold replies “Sorry to hear that.” But as Miller and Carver will discover over the course of the investigation, Gracepoint is no safe haven. In Gracepoint, the binding ties are much more intimate than they’d be in a metropolis. We learn halfway through the episode that the local shit-stirring cub reporter Owen (Kevin Zegers, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones) is also Miller’s nephew, a fact which is thrown in her face when Owen reveals the identity of the deceased before the police get a chance. Laying this groundwork early on is a clear sign that the viewer is in good hands.

Weaknesses

  • Copied and pasted. So the central question when considering any adaptation is to ask what has been gained by the transition. When adapting a book to a movie, there may be scenes that can only be fully realized in a visual medium. When adapting a movie to a musical, there may be aspects that are greatly enhanced by a physical no-holds barred dramatic performance, and the tone of the film might translate into jaunty musical numbers. With international television adaptations, success is often dictated on how the work takes new form and shape in a different culture. Consider how the British and American versions of The Office captured widely different work cultures. Well, it’s hard to argue that Gracepoint addresses anything uniquely American, because it’s nearly exactly the same as Broadchurch. All of those strengths I mentioned above? Not a single one is unique to Gracepoint. Lines of dialogue, entire shots and scenes, very similar looking sets and location shots, even the fucking names–all lifted directly from Broadchurch and slapped down in Northern California. Gracepoint brings absolutely nothing new to the table. It really didn’t need to get made. It’s not like Broadchurch was a remote and inaccessible option for American audiences. Not only is it available on Netflix, but it also aired on BBC America.

Motivation: As with any good mystery, the driving force is knowledge. Who killed Danny Solano!?!?

Final Episode Judgment: 9/10. This is very good. But there’s an important caveat. It’s only very good because Broadchurch was very good and it’s nearly exactly the same. Just watch Broadchurch. For the record, I’d give season one of Broadchurch a 10/10. If for some strange reason you only have access to Gracepoint, it would make a perfectly reasonable substitute.

NEXT TIME: We continue the David Tennant extravaganza with The Politician’s Husband!

Case Study 26: Gracepoint–“Episode One”