Case Study 62: Dance Academy, Episode 32–“Like No One’s Watching”

Original Airdate: March 20th, 2012 on ABC3

Someone put Fame, Center Stage and Degrassi in a blender and what came out was a teen drama with the appropriately bland name of Dance Academy. Sydney’s National Academy of Dance is the prestigious art school this time around. I watched four episodes for this review, and while Academy manages to jettison its cliched roots early on, that doesn’t mean it gets more interesting. Let’s keep this brief, shall we?

Strengths

  • Alicia Banit. None of the characters are particularly distinctive, though the late addition Ben “Benster” Tickle (Thomas Lacey) possesses a not inconsiderable amount of well-observed douchiness. Despite this, Banit manages to set herself apart and successfully creates the illusion that her character Kat Karamakov has a personality. Here, she gamely tries out for a role as a cheerleader for a rugby team, managing to convey that she’s not super into it despite doing a credibly good job at the audition. She also manages to manufacture some chemistry with the otherwise questionable Ben. Pay those dues, girl!

Weaknesses

  • Too many plots. I blame Seinfeld, Friends, and other hip 90s sitcoms for this. Time was that you’d have at most two plotlines in any given episode of television and if that meant every single character didn’t get an equal share of screentime, too fucking bad. At least in the light-hearted, dynamic world of a sitcom you can still get plenty of laughs if the plot is gossamer-thin, but this doesn’t work so well for a 30 minute drama. With an hour long format you could hammer out a more soapy vibe, but if you were writing a soap opera you’d have to write better plot lines than these. Our heroine Tara (Xenia Goodwin) is feeling insecure about herself because she thinks she’s dating out of her league by hooking up with Christian (Jordan Rodrigues.) Kat’s been chucked out of the Academy and is trying to figure out what her next steps are. Sam (not that Tom Green, Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn) is waging an ongoing war about his future with his father (Anthony Cogin, Legend of the Guardians: Owls of Ga’hoole) and his proxy for this battle is his younger brother Ari (Narek Arman, Tomorrow, When the War Began.) None of this is really very interesting, and like the other episodes I watched, the oxygen-starved gasps of interest that occasionally emerged were quickly muffled with the reemergence of a different boring plotline. My advice here is to take one storyline and let it breathe. I don’t care about Tara and Christian because I have nothing invested in their relationship. I don’t buy for a second that they’re in love, because much as in The Secret Diaries of a Call Girl, the show hasn’t bothered to put in the work. That’s probably because it doesn’t have time to put in the work if we have to worry about two other plot lines. Kat and Sam’s stories are pretty perfunctory, but in other episodes I saw their more interesting plotlines got handled in the same way. Kat’s parents are both successful, experienced professional dancers who bring plenty of baggage to her life as a dancing student. That could be a fascinating angle on the ambitions and futures of the main characters, but there’s no space. There’s also no space for a story about Sam struggling with his sexuality. It’s all the more frustrating because you can see the show fighting to get these stories out in about as much time as a commercial break. It doesn’t work.

Final Judgment: 5/10. Dance Academy is a glass of plain water. It’s beige Soylent sludge. It’s something to fill the gaps between the advertisements. I can’t say I hate it, though—what’s there to hate? Readers, I challenge you to have a feeling about Dance Academy.

NEXT TIME: Did you know Aaron Spelling made a TV adaptation of Vampire: The Masquerade? Come back soon to read about Kindred: The Embraced!

Case Study 62: Dance Academy, Episode 32–“Like No One’s Watching”

Case Study 59: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Episode 6–“My First Thanksgiving With Josh!”

Original Airdate: November 16th, 2015 on The CW

You don’t see a lot of musicals on television. There’s a couple reasons for this—they’re a lot of work to produce, and the financial outlay is considerable if you want to have things like dancers, costumes and unique sets. As television budgets have gone up, public interest in musicals has decreased, Hamilton-mania aside. Live-action film musicals were once a staple of the Hollywood diet. When the Golden Globes were founded in the early 1950s, it made sense to have a category called “Best Musical or Comedy.” But aside from outliers like Les Miserables, Sweeney Todd and Mamma Mia, there just aren’t many musicals in theaters these days outside of Disney animation. So Crazy Ex-Girlfriend took a chance, and I’m happy to say that for the most part, it paid off.

Strengths:

  • Musical numbers. So let’s talk about them. This is for the most part virgin territory and Crazy executes its musical sequences remarkably well. Unlike Glee, every song is original, which must make it hard to crank out forty a season. Unlike The Flight of the Conchords, the songs are smoothly integrated into a larger storyline about the quintessential musical-comedy topic of romance. Unlike Cop Rock, it wasn’t cancelled instantly. I watched the first six episodes of Crazy for this review, and while the early episodes had three songs apiece, the pace has slowed to two by this point and that’s mostly a good choice. A song isn’t like a joke—if it falls flat it sucks up two to three minutes of screen time and the show starts to feel like Saturday Night Live. The songs here are both amusing and creative. The first number features our heroine Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) rapping about how she always impresses the parents of her romantic paramours and the second is a loose parody of “Piano Man” about how bitter bartender Greg (Santino Fontana, Frozen) hates being trapped in the sleepy California suburb of West Covina. Songwriting is a completely separate skill from television writing, and it’s impressive that the creators are able to bring both talents to the table.
  • Droll. Crazy is not uproariously funny, and sometimes it’s unsure about whether or not it wants to be funny at all. In the six episodes I watched, there was palpable push and pull over whether the audience is here to laugh or to hear a story. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive, but various outings struggled with offering a reasonable balance. Happily, “Thanksgiving” performs well in this department, but don’t expect belly laughs, either. For an example of what to expect, there’s a gag in the “I Give Good Parent” song where Rebecca and her backup dancers turn around to reveal booty shorts emblazoned with inscriptions like “Polite,” “Smart” and “Good Hygiene.” But it’s hard to maintain the rapid-fire humor of something like The Simpsons or 30 Rock when you’ve got a B-plot about how Greg’s dreams are getting crushed under the weight of his father’s medical bills or an unstoppable urge to move a protracted romance plot ever forward. It turns out that same focus that gives Crazy a leg-up on Conchords is also a drawback if the show is viewed strictly as a comedy.
  • Rachel Bloom & Donna Lynne Champlin. When you’ve got a comedy that’s kinda sorta a comedy but not really, it’s important that you have funny actors who can sell an otherwise uninspired bit. Champlin plays Paula, Rachel’s best friend and co-conspirator in affairs of the heart. Today’s conspiracy involves insinuating Rachel into a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by the family of her crush, Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III.) Paula and Rachel encounter Josh’s mom (Amy Hill, 50 First Dates) and Paula urges her to invite Rachel for the holiday. “I would ask her to come to my house,” she lies, “but we’re going to Paris. ‘Cause that’s where we autumn. It’s like wintering, but cheaper.” This line isn’t especially funny on paper, but the comedic energy Champlin brings to the performance is priceless, and there are a million moments like this for both Champlin and Bloom. Bloom goes the extra mile, as Rebecca is regularly seized by anxiety, self-loathing and anguish as she pines for Josh and fumbles her way into his life. I’ve said before that the chops required for comedic acting are underestimated and Bloom’s performance is a great case study. Rebecca’s experiences really run the gamut, whether she’s confidently rapping, listening to Josh and his girlfriend Valencia (Gabriella Ruiz) have sex, or eating tacos on the couch with Greg.
  • Expanding universe. This show would get pretty suffocating if it was just an endless cruise on the SS Josh & Rebecca, so it makes the smart move and develops a strong cast of supporting characters. Paula is a high-spirited enabler of Rebecca’s romantic schemes, but at home her romance consists of a husband who prides himself on remembering that his wife likes a soap opera that he thinks is called All Of My Days. Greg is quick with a jaundiced one-liner, but it turns out he learned it from his father (Robin Thomas, The Banger Sisters), who uses humor as a defense mechanism to deflect Greg’s attempts to show care and concern.
  • Thematic cohesiveness. Too often, a show will have a perfunctory subplot to pad out the runtime that adds nothing useful, but Greg’s story tonight underscores the theme of Rebecca’s troubles: neither has control over the critical aspects of life that they see as essential to their future. Rebecca moved across the country to chase after a man she had a fling with in summer camp, and it’s a surprise to no one that it isn’t working out for her. This is only reinforced when her Thanksgiving scheme is derailed by Josh asking Valencia to move in together. Greg wants to leave his crappy job as a bartender to go to business school, but he can’t get out from under his dad’s medical bills, whereas Paula is so helpless that she’s living vicariously through Rebecca even more so than usual: she’s got her miked for video and sound. When Greg and Rebecca end up together at the end of the episode goofing off, watching TV and eating tacos, the show makes the tantalizing suggestion that they’d be better together than Rebecca and clueless pretty boy Josh. But Josh doesn’t have control of his life, either—it’s made clear that Valencia is manipulating him with sex.

Weaknesses

  • Racism. It’s sad to report that something that’s been hailed as “a breakthrough television show for Asian-Americans” for its casting of a sexy Asian man as a romantic lead is still susceptible to lazy, racist jokes. Rebecca imagines “basking in the warm embrace of a loving Filipino family” and being “surrounded by the unconditional love of a hundred Filipinos.” She even punctuates this thought with a bizarre fantasy where she’s Mary Poppins and is surrounded by an adoring crowd of children hanging on her every word. Even though stereotypes about Asians being overly dedicated to strong family units are mostly positive, they’re still stereotypes and it’s weird to watch the show uncritically reify them. That article I linked above specifically mentions this episode’s bit about dinuguan. The interviewer says that he’s never seen a joke about dinuguan on mainstream TV. It’s true that representation is important, but I do wish that the joke wasn’t that it smells disgusting and gives you the shits, which is what ends up happening to Rebecca. “Your culture’s food is weird and gross” isn’t what you’d call a super-empowering message. It also doesn’t help that Paula ridicules Valencia by calling her “Venezuela” and “Valderrama.” That’s what she gets for having a Spanish name! Look, Crazy isn’t exactly Birth Of A Nation. The decision to have the romantic lead be an Asian man is huge and has been rightfully applauded, but the show shouldn’t get a free pass on everything. This episode also helpfully illustrates an important point about racism: one reason Paula dreads Thanksgiving is that it means she’ll have to put up with her husband’s “racist uncle.” Later, she tells him “Everyone hates you. You’re racist.” See, that’s the thing—racism isn’t an on-or-off switch, where someone’s either Jesse Jackson or David Duke. Most, if not all, white people inadvertently say or do racist things on a semi-regular basis. Racism is a cultural failing, not a strictly personal flaw, and it often comes across in microaggressions—fantasies about positive stereotypes, open displays of disgust about unfamiliar foods, jokes about someone’s unfamiliar name. When we confine our willingness to acknowledge racism to a crusty old guy at Thanksgiving dinner, white people let ourselves off the hook. I think progressives and liberals are especially eager to do this so they can identify someone else as the bad guy, and I’ll bet the progressives who wrote this show are no exception. They were conscious enough to cast Rodriguez, but they’re by no means perfect.

Final Judgment: 8/10. If you like romcoms, musicals or both, Crazy will fit nicely into your regular rotation. Yes, the racial politics are sometimes fraught, but in American television, it would seem that there are two settings for racial politics: fraught and whitewashed. So I guess the former is preferable???

NEXT TIME: I review another TV show based on a movie when I take on the original La Femme Nikita!

Case Study 59: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Episode 6–“My First Thanksgiving With Josh!”

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

Original Airdate: February 4, 2015 on VH1

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

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

Strengths

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

Weaknesses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case Study 4: Dead Like Me, Episode 15– “Send In The Clown”

Original Airdate: July 25, 2004 on Showtime

This case study marks the first episode I’ve covered that’s part of a series with an overarching plot as opposed to the more episodic hijinks of a sitcom in the vein of So Little Time. Though Dead Like Me isn’t the sort of intricate mosaic where every episode leads into the next and the smallest of details is crucial to understanding the larger picture (I’m thinking of critical darlings like The Wire, Mad Men or The Sopranos) it did appear in the early stages of the “Golden Age” of TV and it aired on a laissez-faire pay cable network, so it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to have high hopes for the series. This is a good time to note that all my reviews which pertain to scripted TV with story arcs will contain spoilers both for the individual episode and the show at large, so beware.

Unfortunately, the show ran into trouble early on when the show’s creator, executive producer and head writer Bryan Fuller, left the show five episodes into its run. This is instructive and shaped my perspective as I viewed this episode, so let’s dig in a bit. My main source on the issue is this interview with Fuller from 2005 that chronicled his exodus. (The interview has been salvaged from the Internet’s bottomless memory hole by the good people at the Internet Archive.) Fuller lays the problems with his brief tenure on the show entirely at the feet of the show’s production company, MGM. He says that dealing with them was a “traumatic experience.” He accuses them of lacking professionalism and savvy. It does sound like there was also some homophobia there–Fuller characterizes the execs as part of a “gross old boy studio” and recounts being told that he didn’t know “what a pretty woman looks like” because of his sexual orientation. Honestly, that sounds more misogynist than homophobic to me–I don’t feel qualified to identify a “pretty woman,” but the bigger question that raises is why a woman has to be pretty to be on TV in the first place. Mandy Patinkin (Homeland) gives an indelible performance as Rube on Dead, but pretty he ain’t.

In my mind the interview makes Fuller look worse than MGM. Here’s a guy whose only previous project was the first of two thoroughly unnecessary remakes of Carrie, which appeared as a TV movie on NBC in 2002. (Fuller cut his teeth in the writer’s room for Star Trek: Voyager, a show I have a soft spot for but which nonetheless did not exactly take the world by storm.) So for the studio I’m sure it was an open question about whether or not he could successfully steward a show in addition to having the great creative ideas necessary to bring it to life. Make no mistake–Dead is crackling with energy and brilliance. Its premise is immediately compelling–a young woman on the verge of adulthood is killed in a freak accident. Instead of going to her universe’s version of an afterlife, she learns that her fate is to be a part of a gang of Grim Reapers who must harvest the souls of those about to die. The execution of this idea is also excellent, as we’ll talk about shortly. But it takes a lot more than a good idea to run a television show.

By storming off the show after a mere five episodes, Fuller proved his doubters at MGM right about his inability to run a show. The fact is, dealing with a difficult studio is simply part of the business. Any creative project that requires any kind of substantial overhead and working with a team of people requires compromise and learning to shine within the constraints you’ve been given. I’m reminded of the great scene in Louie where Joan Rivers tells Louis CK that she can’t tell him that showbiz “gets better,” because it never does and it’s characterized by ups and downs, victories and failures. She also tells him that the cardinal rule of their business is “never quit.” Despite the vagaries of the business, she says, “you do it because we love it more than anything else…what we do is not a job…what we do is a calling, my dear. We make people happy.” The conversation is about comedy, but the deeper truth is about art. I’ve loved all of Fuller’s projects (except Carrie, I suppose) but each and every one has died on the table. Now, I’m sure there’s a variety of things going on there, but Fuller’s stance on Dead in the above interview is…not a good look. It reminds me of the old canard about how if you keep finding yourself in toxic situations again and again, it may be that the common factor is you. It’s also cheap to chalk it all up to homophobia. Tiresome Hollywood power-queer Ryan Murphy makes shitty TV show after shitty TV show, and yet they’re all long-running hits. Murphy pushes the boundaries (past the point of good taste.) He does things on television that haven’t been attempted before (usually for a good reason.) He frequently includes queer characters and lurid tales of their sexual exploits. So I don’t think the deal-breaker for Fuller is that he’s queer and has new ideas, though I suppose I could see the case for an argument that the difference between the two is Murphy’s enthusiastic embrace of pandering to the lowest common denominator. I don’t want Fuller to do that. But in the case of Dead, it wouldn’t have hurt to play ball with the studio. Hell, even a gaping asshole like Dan Harmon managed to hang on with Community for three full seasons.

Two more things on Fuller and then we’ll get to the episode I’m allegedly reviewing here. Another key to being a successful showrunner is the ability to take notes, and Fuller offers up a case study in the interview. For context, George Lass (Ellen Muth) is the show’s protagonist and Fuller refers to a scene that transpires at her funeral involving her father Clancy (Greg Kean.) He says, “In the pilot episode, George’s father hugged a guy, setting up a future storyline in which George realizes her dad was gay and that her life actually wasn’t supposed to be. It was central to the theme that we don’t know the value of a life until it’s too late. But MGM cut the scene and storyline out.” Clancy is an English professor and the fellow he’s hugging is meant to be one of his students; in the shows that aired in Fuller’s absence the student he’s having an affair with is a young woman. Admittedly, the gender swap is a (slight) twist on the hoary cliche of professors fucking their students and causing personal ruin (Examples that float to the top of my mind include Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, The Accidental by Ali Smith, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen…) but the hard truth is that Fuller’s idea sounds rather stupid. Gay people have kids all the time, with partners of all genders. Why would this mean George “wasn’t supposed to be?” Not knowing “the value of a life until it’s too late” is hardly a profound observation, nor is it particularly well demonstrated by this proposed storyline. This sounds like a note well worth taking, but Fuller Took It Personally as a slight to his identity as a fragile gay creative genius. The sad thing is that he IS something of a creative genius! But not all his ideas are gold, and when there’s money on the table, you need people to give you notes.

This may go against the conventional wisdom of Dead fandom, but another strike against Fuller is that many of the show’s best moments came after he left! The first few episodes definitely show some growing pains, which I suppose is not unexpected in the beginning of a deeply creative program run by a rookie producer. But several of my favorite episodes aired after Fuller’s departure: “Reaper Madness,” “The Bicycle Thief,” and “The Shallow End” are some of the series’ high points, and the latter two even both include compassionate, non-sensationalizing portrayals of queer characters, which makes me a bit skeptical about the raw homophobia alleged to be on display in the offices of MGM.

Amusingly, Season 1 also includes a clip show with even less material to go off of than So Little Time’s “Look Who’s Talking.” (By the way, why the hell was the episode called that? No one ever says that and it bears no relationship whatsoever to the events of the show.) Anyway, Dead’s “Nighthawks” is surprisingly good for a clip show. Still, that’s not exactly saying much.

On to the good stuff!

Strengths

  • Strong characterization. One of the beautiful things about television is that characters who might come off as one-note in a movie have time to deepen, grow and blossom into fully-fledged, three-dimensional figures who feel like they might be people you actually know. This in particular is a great episode for character work with all the major players getting interesting material to play with. The show is also very well cast and the characters have a dynamic together that feels genuine, so it’s more the pity that for the most part the members of this great ensemble haven’t had much luck getting more work since Dead. I guess the TV industry works on the mentality that you’re only as good as your last project, and while Dead is very good, it did get cancelled after two seasons. One salient example of how a one-note character can evolve is on display here. When Daisy (Laura Harris, 1998’s The Faculty) first appeared on the show, she replaced the excellent Rebecca Gayheart (Urban Legend,) who left with Fuller in what I assume was a show of solidarity. Gayheart portrayed the very well written character Betty, and at first Daisy was a major let down. As Rube says in this episode, her conversation mostly consisted of “witless stories about star-fucking.” She would frequently toss off childishly provocative lines like “I once gave Errol Flynn a handjob in a convertible.” But as the show went on, the writers took this and built on it, and this episode is a great showcase for both Daisy and Harris. Daisy has excellent–and revealing–conversations with George and Roxy (Jasmine Guy, A Different World.) This episode also lays the groundwork for more stories about Rube and Daisy. In Daisy’s case, she collects a cross on a necklace from the effects of one of her reaping targets. This in itself isn’t taboo–reapers aren’t salaried and can only earn money by stealing from the dead or working in menial jobs–but it sets us up for an intriguing storyline a few episodes later where the family of the deceased wants the cross back and accuses the police of stealing it. This causes Daisy to do some soul-searching in a way that sheds new light on the character. Here she casually explains the cross as a flirtation with Catholicism, but ultimately this explanation winds up having more truth to it than we’re first led to believe.
  • Wit. This show is a “dramedy,” and while there are definitely poignant moments, the snappy dialogue and cutting remarks are a big hook along with the creative premise and thoughtful worldbuilding. The best examples are when the characters are given a chance to bounce off of one another. In one scene when Mason (Callum Blue, The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement) steals Roxy’s hash browns off her plate, she attempts to stab him and then storms off in a huff. Mason says he doesn’t see the point in getting so worked up over “small potatoes,” and Rube dryly comments that Mason’s remark was “almost clever.” Of course, Mason has no idea what Rube is talking about. One of the neat things this show manages to pull off is that even though all the reapers (except Betty–perhaps Fuller hadn’t twigged to this way of conceptualizing the main cast) are hard-edged people who are to varying degrees mean and callous on the outside–presumably this is what qualifies them for the job–we still end up enjoying the time we spend with them regardless. They engage in repartee, they’re quirky and as an added bonus, the more we get to know them the more we see their humanity and they become even more appealing. It’s hard to write a cast of angry, belligerent, sarcastic and otherwise cranky characters and have them not be off-puttingly obnoxious, but instead these people are actually likeable! Compare this with the characters on the much more widely beloved Mad Men. Don Draper is another in a long line of detestable television anti-heroes, and while he is interesting I never found him likeable at all. Even though he’s the center of the show and the character we spend the most time with, I can’t think of a single moment where I felt any affection for him or that anything he did was endearing. Often as a viewer of Men I got the sense that the show is high on Draper’s supply, that it sees him with a certain amount of awe and love that it didn’t successfully convey to the viewer. Admittedly, I did feel stirrings of compassion for him at various moments–but never affection. If the show were just about Don I never would have made it past the first season. Pete Campbell is equally odious, but fares slightly better because he is at least fun to laugh at and the show enjoys taking the piss out of him and clearly sees him as the prissy, pretentious little man that he is. Roger Sterling is also a jackass, but he’s easily the most likable of the three because he’s funny, not to laugh at but to laugh with. Every episode where Roger features in any substantial way is guaranteed to have at least one hilarious line from him, if not more.
  • A cohesive theme. The best episodes of television aren’t just a bunch of interesting or entertaining things happening, though you could definitely do worse–many excellent sitcoms don’t feel the need to embrace a theme and are still highly enjoyable and well worth watching. I suppose the standards are somewhat higher for a drama like Dead, and this episode nails its theme, which is the loss of innocence going hand in hand with missed opportunities for growth. It happens in many different ways–George was a virgin when she died, and when she is assigned the task of training a young man named Brennan (Steven Grayhm, House of Dust) at the temp agency where she works, she makes a move on him, despite the wishes of both Rube and her employer Delores (consistent scene-stealer Christine Willes.) She backs off of Brennan when Delores bribes her with a promotion, but Rube strongly advises her to turn down the promotion, since he doesn’t think she’s ready to take on the job and her duties as a reaper at the same time. Part of this is on Rube–he sees George as a surrogate for the daughter he abandoned when he became a bank robber to get money for his impoverished family, and her growing up and wanting to be independent is clearly painful for him. He gives George the same pet name he gave to his daughter, and when she snottily tells him not to call her that you can see in his eyes how hurt he is, along with his reluctance to betray those emotions to George. It’s a really fabulous moment from Patinkin that not many actors would be able to pull off. Rube is right, though–not necessarily about the promotion but George in general. She’s having a very hard time growing up, much as she has a very hard time accepting her new role in (after)life for the duration of Season 1. Daisy nails it when she tells George “You think you know everything; look how unhappy you are.” The episode ends with George laying a flower on her own grave to commemorate the sexual and emotional maturation she didn’t get to enjoy in life and isn’t enjoying now. We see Rube exploring this theme when he and Mason go to 6 year old Emily Sondheim’s (Jacklyn Kelly) birthday party to collect the soul of one Lloyd Sondheim, Emily’s father (David MacKay.) As a cover story, Mason accepts the role of the absent birthday clown. Emily asks Rube if he’s “the clown’s daddy” and he tells her no. Emily follows up with a question the viewer might be asking: “Then why are you here?” Rube: “I am somebody’s daddy…she’s just not at this party.” He then looks her right in the eye and says, “I want you to remember how funny [Mason] was, okay?” Rube’s daughter lost her innocence the night he left her, and Rube lost the opportunity to grow with her. Of course, the same fate befalls Emily and Lloyd. The newly departed Lloyd upbraids Mason for his typically crass behavior at the party–making penis shaped balloon animals, expressing his desire to ejaculate on the lower back tattoo of a party guest, etc.–and he wonders why Mason would try so hard to ruin the last happy day Emily is likely to enjoy for quite some time. The freshly sober Mason realizes that all his problems aren’t tied to his substance abuse–even when he’s not strung out, he’s still a crude, vulgar jerk who grabs food off people’s plates and teases effeminate little boys. He falls off the wagon, swiping the last of an unconscious bum’s booze to kill his shame and self-hatred with drugs, just like he always has (though at least he has the decency to reimburse the bum for his troubles.) Mason lost his innocence long ago, but here he’s also lost an opportunity for growth.

Weaknesses

  • The Lasses. I really can’t think of a reason we need to spend time with what’s left of George’s family every episode. People watched this show because it’s about Grim Reapers and one possible version of the afterlife. That’s unique! There’s nothing else on television like it (until Reaper, anyway, which had the twist of being about reapers who work for the devil.) There’s nothing interesting about spending two seasons watching George’s family cope with her death, even if their stories contribute to the overall theme. It’s great that the Lasses all share a family resemblance in terms of their personality and Joy (Cynthia Stevenson, Happiness) in particular is well-drawn and well-acted–another example of an uptight, angry character who still comes across as fully human and sympathetic. (Though only very briefly in this episode–she spends much of it attacking everyone around her, fairly and unfairly.) Despite that, though, the Lasses add nothing compelling and I found my attention wandering every time they appeared. If you want to watch a much more interesting take on how families deal with death, there’s always Six Feet Under.
  • Wildly inconsistent tone. It can be hard to invest in a show which attempts the unreservedly wacky alongside the poignant tugging of heartstrings. That’s not to say it’s impossible to do. Bojack Horseman manages nicely, and Futurama’s “Jurassic Bark” is the brutal apex of this sort of thing. Just thinking about it makes me want to go hug my own dog. Dead doesn’t come anywhere close to pulling this off. On the one hand, we have an endless litany of ludicrous death sequences, enabled by the fact that the show specifically focuses on a squad of Reapers who only deal in accidental and violent deaths. On the other hand, we have late Lloyd going over to his daughter, wanting to touch her one last time–and his hands pass through her since he’s no longer corporeal. You could excuse the wacky deaths as essential to the show’s premise, and also note the fact that Six was hardly immune to the impulse to disproportionately portray cinematic death by misadventure, but Dead’s comedic style is broader and goofier in general, stretching the plausibility of the world building. Consider the bit where George is trying to teach Brennan the phones and what seems like 40 different lines start ringing at once as he fumbles about, or the scene where George cuts herself on the paper shredder. Some context is needed there–the Reapers can feel pain from an injury, but their bodies heal and regenerate quickly. When George cuts herself, it severs the entire top half of her middle finger. Usually, paper shredders have safety mechanisms that prevent you from cutting yourself at all, but even if you managed to do it the shredder would hardly be able to saw through bone and tendon. This would be fine if the show were consistently this silly, but mostly it’s matter of fact and emphasizes the mundanity of its supernatural reality. It’s got a unique style to be sure, but when it takes things too far like this it’s jarring. I think this would work better if this tonal inconsistency happened on an episode by episode basis–if we got some episodes that were fairly serious and realistic and some episodes that were cheerfully absurd–but switching gears so often in one episode leads to a bit of grinding.
  • Unnecessary narration. Anyone working in television, please listen. If you are considering adding narration, don’t. It very seldom works, and usually it’s just irritating. Desperate Housewives is a great example of how it can drag down a show, and unfortunately Dead is as well. (Thankfully it’s not as ever present here as it is on Desperate.) I get that George is our viewpoint character and that she has a fairly flat affect and can be hard to read (when she’s not losing her temper, that is.) This may be why Muth hasn’t gotten much work since–she’s perfect as George but I also don’t get the sense that she has immense range. But there are a huge number of ways you can get across whatever you want to say by showing and not telling, even with George’s mostly closed outward personality.

Something new for this installment–if I’ve seen an entire show or a substantial chunk of it, I’ll offer a rating for the series as a whole as well as the individual episode. I was enamored of this show when it aired. This was back in the day where if you missed a show when it aired you were flat out of luck, though, so I didn’t see much of the second season. I was finally able to catch the whole thing in 2009 when it showed up on Netflix. Yes, even the wretched straight-to-DVD movie which Patinkin and Harris didn’t return for. Daisy was badly recast. Sarah Wynter (The 6th Day) took on the role abdicated by Harris and Wynter was not up to the task. Interestingly, Harris and Wynter played sisters on 24.

Final Episode Judgment: 7/10. While it’s not Dead’s best outing, it’s certainly well-done. With a show this good, you don’t want to skip an episode unless it’s really dreadful, and I don’t think even “Nighthawks” or the diminishing returns of Season 2’s back nine qualify for that status. That awful movie does, though.

Final Series Judgment: 8/10. Definitely worth your time, and it’s short and sweet. Fuller’s departure gives you the sense of missed potential and there are some rocky spots here and there, but as I’m sure we’ll see, there are many worse things you could be watching.

NEXT TIME: Lupin III gives this project its first look at anime!

Case Study 4: Dead Like Me, Episode 15– “Send In The Clown”