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

Original Airdate: December 8th, 1990 on Fox

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

Weaknesses

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

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

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

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

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

Original Airdate: September 26th, 1970 on CBS

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

Strengths

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

 
Weaknesses

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

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

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

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

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

Original Airdate: October 20th, 2015 on CBS

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

Strengths:

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

Weaknesses:

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

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

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

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

Case Study 40: Emergency! Episode 28–“Honest”

Original Airdate: February 17th, 1973 on NBC

Jack Webb was to 1970s NBC procedurals what Paul Henning was to 1960s CBS sitcoms, except unlike Henning, Webb got his start in front of the camera. He was the perfect straight arrow for the hard-boiled realism of the 1950s version of Dragnet, which had originally been a big hit on radio. The franchise went dormant for much of the 60s, but it was brought back in a big way in 1967 in response to a growing appetite among reactionary types for a law & order approach to hippies and free love. It was the start of a successful stretch for Webb’s production company, Mark VII Limited. Dragnet begat a spinoff in the form of Adam-12 and Adam-12 apparently exhausted the potential of police procedurals for Mark VII, which resulted in a new spinoff, the medical procedural Emergency! And that’s the last time I’m using that over-enthusiastic exclamation point.

Strengths

  • Realism. One of the most exciting things that a procedural can offer viewers is a peek inside something they wouldn’t otherwise get to see–a homicide investigation, open-heart surgery, a contentious lawsuit. If the procedural is more realistic, it seems more authentic, and that authenticity is satisfying for the viewer. This was behind the success of Dragnet and it’s what made Law & Order an unstoppable franchise that’s existed for decades. As ER grew away from realism, it got less satisfying (helicopter crashes, anyone?) This doesn’t mean that realism is the only way to have success with a procedural–NCIS has remained massively popular and it’s more characteristic of an action thriller than a traditional police procedural. It’s not that it failed to be realistic–it offers different pleasures. But Emergency is banking on a realistic depiction of the lives of paramedics and firefighters, and delivers an experience with an air of authenticity. I’ve never been a firefighter or a paramedic, so I can only offer so many assurances, but I was convinced and I expect the average viewer outside those professions would be as well.

Weaknesses

  • Didactic, meaningless approach to its theme. The fact that the title of the episode clunkily announces the theme of the program bodes ill for things to come. You see, our hero John Gage (Randolph Mantooth) becomes fixated on the idea that human misery would be alleviated if only we could all be perfectly honest all the time. Get ready for a pointless dimestore interpretation of virtue ethics! Each and every situation addressed by the paramedics in this episode has an obvious, lampshaded connection to honesty, though some of those connections are pretty tenuous and there’s never a probing or meaningful exploration of any of the examples that are thrown at us. Gage makes his honesty vow in the cold open when paramedics respond to the site of a kitchen gas explosion. The wife (Beverly Sanders, Scooby Doo! Curse Of The Lake Monster) in a newlywed couple had left the gas on before having a 20-minute argument with her husband (Michael Lerner, 1998’s Godzilla) about his cigars. You see, back when they were dating she pretended to like his stinky cigars but it turns out she doesn’t really like them. The argument culminated in him spitefully lighting a cigar, blowing the damn house to kingdom come. The moral that Gage takes away from this is not that the husband is an asshole but rather that the wife should have been honest about the cigars from day one. Maybe Gage is one of those Ayn Rand enthusiasts who don’t see the downside to “brutal honesty”–where being “honest” is more important than not being a jerkass–because he’s not persuaded about the downsides when he sees Dr. Morton (Ron Pinkard) bluntly tells worried mother Patricia Epps (Anne Whitfield, White Christmas) about her son’s grim prognosis, reducing her to a heap of quivering Jell-O. But it turns out Ms. Epps was the dishonest one all along–in a twist that the writers on House would be proud of, it turns out that she doomed her son by not telling doctors about medicines she had already tried giving her son at home. Dishonesty! Or, you know, just getting flustered and confused in the wake of a medical emergency, or something. But it’s so fun to blame women for everything! Also coming in for the blame is Cheryl Olmstead (Ondine Vaughn, Carola), a tenant who didn’t tell her landlady that the landlady’s 13 year old son likes to take the car for joyrides. Sure, this is a reasonable, if somewhat obvious, example of the negative consequences of dishonesty, as Gage points out later in a conversation with his colleague Roy DeSoto (Kevin Tighe)…but DeSoto’s rebuttal about the negative consequences of honesty doesn’t make any damn sense at all. He refers back to another case they responded to where some idiot tried to do a somersault off the roof of a hotel into the pool and broke his neck. Somehow, this is because his girlfriend (Hilda Wynn, A Woman For All Men) told him the truth by telling him that he was a “phony.” My point here is that many of these supposedly revealing vignettes about the value of honesty are neither meaningful nor very interesting, and while the show is very ham-fisted about pointing out how every stupid thing in these people’s lives revolves around the honesty of others it all feels hollow.
  • Boring. You’d think a show called Emergency would be suspenseful and action-packed, but some of these sequences drag on forever. Maybe I’m spoiled by today’s world of quick cuts and short scenes, but it seems like an eternity when the paramedics spend 7 minutes fishing dumbass out of the pool, especially since there’s no payoff other than a fatuous moral about the dangers of being honest with fragile male egos. And apparently the writers have never heard of the drawbacks of “shoe leather” in a screenplay–ie, when you spend valuable screen time showing people going to and from a location. There are so many shots of emergency vehicles navigating the streets of Los Angeles that I began to think I was playing Grand Theft Auto V, except then I’d be entertained. Perhaps if the scenes were tighter we’d have more time to develop one of our 17 pointless storylines.

Motivation: Gage’s pseudo-philosophical ponderings may be boring as hell, but at least he’s trying to search for knowledge.

Final Episode Judgment: 4/10. There’s something fascinating about watching professionals try to save a life, and it’s always interesting to see the events that led to medical mayhem reconstructed, but Emergency only manages to embrace its virtues in spite of its ponderous script.

NEXT TIME: Is there a children’s television franchise I’ve somehow managed to overlook? Yes. Yes there is. Tune in next time for Lego Star Wars: The Yoda Chronicles!

Case Study 40: Emergency! Episode 28–“Honest”

Case Study 12: NCIS, Episode 287–“Lockdown”

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?

Strengths

  • 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.

Weaknesses

  • 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*

Case Study 12: NCIS, Episode 287–“Lockdown”

Case Study 11: Alcatraz, Episode 2–“Ernest Cobb”

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…

Strengths

  • 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.

Weaknesses

  • 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!

Case Study 11: Alcatraz, Episode 2–“Ernest Cobb”