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

Original Airdate: March 20th, 2012 on CBS

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

Strengths

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

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

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

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

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

Case Study 66: The Scooby-Doo Show, Episode 5–“The Headless Horseman of Halloween”

Original Airdate: October 9th, 1976 on ABC

Out of all the entities in the intellectual property storehouse of Hanna-Barbera, the crime-solving Great Dane named Scooby-Doo has had the most staying power. There have been twelve different iterations of the animated series, including one that’s still on the air today, as well as countless feature-length animated movies, not to mention the live action movies with the hideous CGI dog. Seriously, Snoop Dogg turning into an actual dog in that music video looked more credible. There’s also the predictably large swath of merchandise and cash-in attempts, including actual Scooby Snack dog treats, a Scooby Doo-themed version of Clue, and for some reason a Scooby Doo stage play. Sadly, tonight’s case study demonstrates that a higher-profile Hanna-Barbera product doesn’t make for higher quality.

Strengths

  • Paying tribute to literary heritage. When I saw that this was going to center on the Headless Horseman, I felt confident that it was going to be a watered-down, half-assed public domain bastardization that would make Washington Irving spin like a whirligig. While Scooby is half-assed in all things, this was a surprisingly thoughtful adaptation of the classic story. The show makes an intriguing intertextual move by establishing that the Scooby-verse exists within the fictional context set up by “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The horseman’s story is traced not to Irving but instead to Ichabod Crane, the ancestor of one Beth Crane (Janet Waldo, The Jetsons), a friend of the Scooby Squad that only exists for the purposes of this episode and this episode only. Beth faithfully situates the Horseman’s origins within the Revolutionary War—as in the story, the Horseman is said to be a luckless Hessian decapitated by a stray cannonball, and this is almost certainly the only Hanna-Barbera program ever to discuss Hessians. Because there’s a glimmer of uniqueness and originality in this part of the storyline, Scooby viewers may be tempted to track down the source text. Of course, they might after doing that be tempted to never watch this show again, but either way, points for being bookish.
  • Sparingly amusing. Scooby is ostensibly a comedy, but the laughs are few and far between. Here are the three funny things that happen in this episode. Number one: We begin the action at a Halloween party hosted by Beth, who is dressed as Snagglepuss. Hooray for synergy! Number two: At one point, the characterically craven duo of Shaggy (Casey Kasem) and Scooby-Doo (Don Messick) faint due to fright. Scooby’s dimwitted country relation, Scooby-Dum (Daws Butler, The Jetsons), sees this state of affairs and also pretends to faint, appearing to think that this is what they’re all doing now. Ho ho ho. Number three: At various occasions, the dogs get their noses touched, bopped or poked, resulting in a comical honk sound effect. This concludes the list of funny moments in this episode of Scooby. You might be saying, “Wait, none of those were funny at all!” Well, now you can imagine what the rest of the episode was like.

Weaknesses

  • Scooby-Dum. I know some of you stopped paying attention the second I brought up this hick. Yes, that’s right—the good people at HB decided they needed to spice up the action by introducing another dog, even dumber and less articulate than the original dog. Clearly they didn’t learn from this mistake, as the execrable Scrappy-Doo was still three years away from being born into existence wet with the amniotic fluid of Satan’s bride. S. Doo is already hard enough to understand and his conversations with S. Dum prove nigh incomprehensible. Dum has little to offer besides hammy mugging and a bumpkin-ish approach to the unforgiving world of confidence men dressed up as movie monsters from the thirties. Wikipedia grimly notes continuity errors amounting to a “dubious lineage” for Dum, and I figured that these errors were born of a critical lack of interest on the part of the people who had written 40 episodes of this particular flavor of Scooby, but it turns out that there’s inconsistency even within this specific episode, with Dum being referred to as both Scooby’s brother and his cousin. I’m going to choose to interpret this as evidence that the Scooby line is rife with incest, which goes some way towards explaining why the Scoobies are critically stupid despite their sapience.
  • Flaccid “mystery.” Look, I love a good mystery. Even when I was a kid I loved a good mystery. Scooby acts like it’s going to present you with a mystery. They drive around in a goddamned Mystery Machine. What we get instead would make Agatha Christie vomit blood in an incendiary, gin-soaked rage. The minute we lay eyes on Elwood Crane (John Stephenson, The Flintstones) it’s obvious he’s the monster-impersonating douchebag we’re looking for, but we have to hang around for 15 minutes while the usual gang of idiots figures out that the seedy uncle who took the diamond necklace for “safekeeping” is actually the bad guy. They still don’t come to the natural conclusion even when the “Horseman” “steals” Elwood’s head. The really outrageous thing is that there’s only one other person the Horseman could possibly be, the Lurch-esque butler Tarlof (Alan Oppenheimer, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.) Tarlof is obviously a fake-out, seeing as he’s creepy-looking as hell. He also didn’t take any fucking diamonds!
  • Unconvincing action sequences. The episode tries to go out with a bang as Doo, Shaggy and Elwood wrestle one another for control of a speeding biplane mid-air. The problem is that the show has been taking advantage of cartoon physics all along, so it’s not like gravity is a serious threat. In fact, Scooby at one point steps completely out of the plane and walks several feet out on the empty air in the grand tradition of Wile E. Coyote. Next, they apparently crash through the back wall of an airplane hangar without damaging the plane. Shaggy falls through a mysterious hole in the seat and grabs onto the landing gear. Finally, the plane abruptly and inexplicably disintegrates. The end result is something neither thrilling nor comprehensible.

Final Judgment: 3/10. There are probably better episodes of Scooby. I know there are worse episodes, thanks to the aforementioned hell-spawn. Headless Horseman aside, Scooby and the gang can’t escape the stench of hackish mediocrity.

NEXT TIME: Gritty live action superheroes, anyone? I review Gotham!

Case Study 66: The Scooby-Doo Show, Episode 5–“The Headless Horseman of Halloween”

Case Study 26: Gracepoint–“Episode One”

Original Airdate: October 2nd, 2014 on FOX

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

Strengths

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

Weaknesses

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

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

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

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

Case Study 26: Gracepoint–“Episode One”