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?
- 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.
- 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!
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!
- 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!
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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…
- 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!
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.
- 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.
- 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!
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?
- 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.
- 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*
Original Airdate: January 16, 2012 on FOX
It would seem that director/writer/producer J.J. Abrams has become pop culture royalty, but I’ve never been particularly impressed with his work. Under review tonight is an offering from his production company. It should be noted that Abrams is not the “creator” of this show–that would be Elizabeth Sarnoff, a veteran of his writers room on Lost–but you wouldn’t know it from reading the press, where it’s often described as “J.J. Abrams’ Alcatraz,” which I suppose is understandable considering that’s what the show’s promotional art says. The thing is, if you look at Abrams’ track record in terms of what he’s produced, his win-loss ratio is terrible: 5 hits (Lost, Alias, Felicity, Fringe, Person Of Interest) to 7 losses (What About Brian, Six Degrees, Undercovers, Alcatraz, Revolution, Almost Human, Believe.) You could argue this is because Abrams isn’t directly involved with the creative process anymore–Felicity, Alias, Lost, Fringe and Undercovers were the only shows on that list where he’s actually billed as “creator.” You see, now J.J. doesn’t have time for TV–he’s off ruining beloved media franchises on the big screen. Alcatraz may be from Abrams’ farm team, but it’s clearly part of the Bad Robot brand. Its failures and successes are driven by the hallmarks of previous Abrams projects, as you’ll see below. I should note that I am far from an Abrams expert–I’ve seen substantial chunks of Lost and Fringe but not the full run of either series, as well as both Star Trek movies and Cloverfield. Most of the comparisons here are based on Lost, since that is a) Abrams’ most famous project b) the one I have seen the most recently and c) Sarnoff’s entry point into the Abrams quicksand. And that brings me to thing that’s most fucked up about the Abrams/Sarnoff elision: If Alcatraz had been a hit, Abrams would get the lion’s share of the glory and Sarnoff would maybe get another gig. As it stands, he’s gotten a chance to shit out 3 more failed TV shows and has received a raft of plum directorial jobs in Hollywood, and she appears to have vanished into a swirling abyss for the last 3 years. (This logic may not map neatly onto Person, but Jonathan Nolan started on second base thanks to his brother. Also, he’s a dude–can’t help but wonder if that’s a factor in the abrupt ending to Sarnoff’s career.) Moving on to the actual show and away from the insider baseball…
- Intriguing (in a cheap sort of way.) As often happens with Abrams properties, the show has an instantly compelling premise with plenty of potential. According to the show, when Alcatraz Federal Prison was closed in 1963, the prisoners weren’t transferred elsewhere as society has been led to believe. Instead, they mysteriously disappeared and have inexplicably been reappearing in the present day without having aged since 1963, which makes this the third show I’ve reviewed in a row to deal with timey-wimey shenanigans. Predictably, given its provenance, the show raises all sorts of questions and sets up all kinds of mysteries which it has no intention whatsoever of resolving any time soon–and, of course, it got cancelled, so percentages on any kind of satisfaction are even further diminished. Let’s briefly review the meat of the story. I’ll note that for the purposes of this review I also watched the pilot, which I felt was probably going to do a better job of introducing me to the characters and the premise than internet research and since I’m reviewing the second episode, it’s far from onerous in terms of catch-up. Our hero is the blandly intrepid Det. Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones.) She’s recovering from the violent death of her partner at the hands of a ruthless perp when she’s assigned to investigate the death of one E.B. Tiller, who turns out to be the former deputy warden at everyone’s favorite iconic island prison. This sends her down a rabbit hole leading to a secret, high-tech Alcatraz mystery lab, helmed by shadowy FBI agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park.) By the end of the pilot, we have two huge Abrams-brand caps lock twists: Madsen had previously believed her grandfather to be a prison guard at Alcatraz, but he’s actually THE GUY WHO KILLED HER PARTNER, and when Hauser catches the bad guys, he’s not taking them to a normal prison, he’s taking them to a SECRET ALCATRAZ REPLICA HE HAS BUILT IN A WOODLAND GLADE. Mysteries arise–not just the fundamentals like what happened to the prisoners and why they’re reappearing, but also things like what’s the backstory around Madsen’s grandfather? What’s Hauser’s true agenda and long-term plan? Madsen’s uncle and father figure Ray Archer (Robert Forster, Jackie Brown) is a former Alcatraz guard and is cagy and full of undoubtably juicy secrets–what are they? The malevolent prisoner du jour in the pilot is one Jack Sylvane (Jeffrey Pierce, The Tomorrow People) and some of the present-day crimes he commits seem to be incited by some higher power unknown to him–what’s going on there? This tactic is effective–despite the fact that the pilot was distinctly unimpressive, I wanted to see more, because a unique mystery is inherently fascinating to many viewers, including me. But it’s also cheap. If I wanted to come back for a second episode, it wasn’t because of any strong craftsmanship displayed in the pilot–if anything, it was in spite of the shoddy craftsmanship there. Alcatraz didn’t earn its intrigue. But it is intriguing nonetheless.
- Jorge Garcia. Garcia was one of the highlights of the large and varied cast of Lost, and he’s also been brought up through the Abrams farm system for a star turn in Alcatraz. He plays Dr. Diego Soto, an expert in criminal justice and Civil War history (?) with four published books on the prison. Soto becomes Madsen’s de facto civilian partner. Garcia’s readings bring life and charisma to otherwise leaden dialogue and he gracefully delivers a character arc in the second episode centering on his squeamishness around the actual nuts and bolts of crime solving, what with the victims of violent crimes and their grieving families. He aptly demonstrates that he’s more than just Hurley. I’d be interested to see how he’s faring in his new role on Hawaii Five-O. Not interested enough to watch that show, though. Until I’m forced to, that is.
- Multifaceted. I had to wrack my brains over this one. This is a problem I suspect I’ll encounter frequently–a situation where a show’s qualities are a double-edged sword, serving as a strength in some ways and a weakness in others. We’ll get to the deficits below. I think a big explanation for why Abrams’ work is so popular is that it can be many things to many people. It defies genre. On the surface, Alcatraz seems like a sci-fi show. It is, but the plot of any given episode is driven by deduction and detection, like any good mystery or police procedural. But these aren’t cerebral mysteries of the kind you might find on PBS–Each episode is also sure to come laden with well-trodden action tropes. The pilot has a scene where Madsen and Soto are sneaking around in secret off-limits rooms in Alcatraz, only to be the victims of a mysterious knockout gas from an unseen source dramatically rolling down the stairs. The second episode culminates in a tense standoff with a maniac wielding a sniper rifle. Theoretically, it can please some of the people all the time.
- Evidence that being multifaceted can backfire. In practice, however, Alcatraz fails to live up to the other half of that credo–that is, pleasing all of the people some of the time. Its attempt to serve multiple masters leads to an inability to properly and consistently deliver any of the thrills it sets out to provide. If you want a mystery, you’ll probably itch at the wild contrivances built in through brazenly unrealistic technology–although Bones is dustily clattering into its 11th season, so maybe I’m out of touch with what the average mystery fan wants. At one point Madsen urges Soto to take a photo of the contemporary San Francisco skyline and edit out all the buildings that didn’t exist in 1963–a feat he accomplishes with a few keystrokes. I suppose these sorts of shenanigans are de rigeur in a post-CSI landscape, but for someone who wants to see a mystery solved through research and deduction, it feels extraordinarily cheap and might as well involve wizards and cauldrons. If you want an action adventure with car chases and shootouts and whatnot, you’ll have to sit still long enough to watch Madsen poke around on Google and endure long stretches of increasingly risible Alcatraz-related exposition. If you want sci-fi thrills, you’re in the same boat as you’d be watching Lost–you’re confronted with unexplained phenomena suggestive of science fiction without being given any kind of grounding in internal logic or even basic principles until you put more coins into the bottomless Bad Robot bubblegum machine. Alcatraz will likely scratch enough of your respective genre fiction itches to keep you watching, but it’s just as likely to leave you feeling empty and as if you’ve wasted 45 minutes.
- Sarah Jones & Sam Neill. Look, Neill is fine in Jurassic, but he’d really have to stink to ruin such a great movie. Alcatraz is no Jurassic. I wonder what the craft services situation on Alcatraz was, because Neill is determined to eat scenery. I’m sure the treatment read like high comedy, but Neill’s over-the-top shady, dramatic asshole routine doesn’t fit the relatively straight-faced approach Alcatraz takes to its ludicrous subject matter. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Jones is a cold fish. Madsen is not very interesting as a character, but with a steady hand on the wheel Jones could have made her come to life. She’s the protagonist and she’s a feisty, fierce, no-bullshit woman in a man’s world. Since she’s underdeveloped, the performance is the tipping point that pushes it one way or another. Jones pushes it decidedly into “another” territory with her wooden delivery and inability to convey basic emotions.
Final Episode Judgment: 6/10. There’s enough going on here to keep you coming back, if you can live with the inevitable disappointment of a cancellation after 13 episodes that surely leaves many threads dangling. I’m especially inclined to look kindly on “Cobb,” since it is a marked improvement over the pilot, particularly when it comes to the script. I’d only give the pilot a 4/10.
NEXT TIME: I take on the juggernaut of today’s police procedural landscape: NCIS!