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!

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

Case Study 54: Roswell, Episode 22–“Destiny”

Original Airdate: May 15th, 2000 on The WB

Over the last couple of decades, TV shows about teenagers dealing with the supernatural have proved a reliable source of ratings and dedicated fans. In addition to The Vampire Diaries, we’ve seen titles as varied as Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Supernatural and Teen Wolf explore their characters’ angst via cheesy monster makeup. Roswell wasn’t quite as successful as these shows—it only made it three seasons before going back to its home planet and dying along the way—but it definitely followed the same formula, and much like Diaries, its consistency varies sharply from episode to episode. I watched six episodes from the first season for this review.

Strengths

  • Action thrills. “Destiny” is the exciting climax to season 1, so it’s not surprising that there’d be some thrills, spills and bellyaches. There’s car chases. There’s shootouts. Our two leads jump what looks like 20 feet into a reservoir to evade bloodthirsty FBI agents. It’s all very stimulating, if you’re into that sort of thing.
  • Liz & Max. Roswell’s protagonist is the all-American girl next door Liz Parker (Shiri Appleby, Unreal.) The heart of the show is her ill-starred relationship with undercover alien Max Evans (Jason Behr.) The viewers would be doomed to scene after boring scene of these two making ineffectual goo-eyes if there wasn’t chemistry here, but thankfully they seem like a very real couple with years of history and charged sexual tension. Behr’s performance in particular is very low-key and understated, but instead of seeming wooden he radiates an alluring calm and confidence even in times of ridiculously heightened conflict and drama. His performance affirms an unearthly nature that you’d expect to find in an alien, and it offers a startling contrast with Appleby’s confusion and vulnerability. This episode is particularly momentous for their relationship, as well. The happy couple are presented with mounting evidence that Max’s destiny lies in a relationship with his fellow alien, Tess Harding (Emile de Ravin, Once Upon A Time.) Early in the episode, Max assures Liz of the profundity of his love for her, telling her that she was the only thing giving him strength and perseverance when the FBI was torturing him in the previous episode. The dialogue doesn’t read like much on the page, but the chemistry between the actors really sells it. The effect is doubled at the episode’s end when the characters finally figure out how to activate a message from their alien relatives and Max’s long-lost alien mother (Genie Francis, General Hospital) confirms that Tess is fated to be Max’s bride. As Liz tearfully walks away from Max, the emotional impact is real and persuasive. It makes for a very satisfying cliffhanger.
  • Alien superpowers. Did I mention that the aliens can disable vehicles at 50 feet, induce hallucinations in hapless FBI agents and change the molecular structure of doorknobs? They can totally do those things, and it’s awesome. Giving the aliens weird powers spices things up, because there’s only so much you can do with canonical aliens evading detection. It gives them a meaningful way to defend themselves against hostile humans without completely sacrificing their human “identity” and therefore their relatability.
  • A well-executed double/triple-cross. Ah, there’s nothing quite like a scheme. In this episode, the aliens are finally able to neutralize the threat posed by zealous FBI crusader Agent Pierce (David Conrad, Ghost Whisperer.) To do this, they need to develop the perfect plan and marshall all their allies and powers. The key player in all this is Sheriff Jim Valenti (William Sadler, The Shawshank Redemption.) Over the course of the season, Valenti had been an ambiguous factor for the aliens. He doggedly investigated them and created a constant atmosphere of paranoia, but he also resented federal overreach when the FBI started their own investigations, even when his own investigations depended on intelligence from the Feds. By the time Max is kidnapped by the FBI, Liz is desperate enough to place complete faith in Valenti, but that faith is put to the test when it’s time to finally take action against Pierce in this episode. The show goes in for the good old-fashioned double/triple-cross—at first it seems like Valenti was only playing along with the aliens so that he could lead them to Pierce, and this would make a certain amount of sense. Valenti’s father was a dedicated alien conspiracy theorist drawn to Roswell for the obvious reasons, and Valenti’s initial passion is fueled by the desire to prove his father right. It’s also reasonable to assume that his allegiances would lie with his own species, especially since rogue alien Nasedo (Jim Ortlieb, Flatliners) is going around killing people. But, no—it turns out that Valenti was on the right side all along as he helps the aliens capture Pierce. This makes sense too: Pierce is a big fan of using extrajudicial force on innocent teenage civilians. The key to a successful triple-cross is plausibility. There has to be sufficient motivation and ambiguity around a character to make the viewer believe a double-cross could really happen, and it worked here for me thanks to the residual mistrust built up around Valenti over the course of the season. Here’s a great example of the power of serialized storytelling on television. By creating a whole roster of episodes where Valenti is on various sides of an allegiance, there’s an elegant aura of instability around the character’s motivations that would be very difficult to achieve in a screenplay.
  • Comeuppance. As mentioned, a huge chunk of the previous episode was centered on lengthy torture and interrogation sequences. Now the tables are turned, and Max has complete power over Pierce’s fate. The show underscores this by having Max repeat some of Pierce’s intimidating spiel verbatim. It’s a bit of a hack move, but it’s still effective, and it was very satisfying when Pierce finally got killed.
  • An exciting set-up for next season. In addition to the aforementioned romantic strife, the grand finale also offers an exciting glimpse into the plot of season two. Max’s mother’s message tells the aliens that a great and evil enemy has pursued them to Earth and that they may not be able to identify the enemies until it’s too late. All of a sudden, the FBI is the least of their problems. What’s more, activating the message also alerts unknown agents all over the country, as showcased in a chilling closing montage. If I were a fan of this show, it’d definitely make me want to come back for more.

Weaknesses

  • Slo-mo. Ugh. Don’t do this. It never looks cool. It’s never exciting. It only underlines the paucity of any given action sequence or dramatic moment if it has to be slowed down to make it seem important or interesting. You’re better than this, Roswell.
  • Contrivance and artificial tension. Whoa, it sure is a happy coincidence that Valenti stumbles on Liz and Max just as they’re about to be captured by the pursuing FBI agents, and it’s an even happier coincidence that Valenti brought along the alien Michael Guerin (Brendan Fehr,) and it’s the happiest coincidence of all that it’s only then that Michael discovers his magical ability to disable vehicles. Also dumb: an argument among the aliens about whether they’ll stay in Roswell or go on the lam and settle down somewhere else. It turns out this show is called Roswell, not Schenectady, and there’s no way in hell they’re skipping town. Why bother pretending like that was ever a serious option?
  • David Conrad. Pierce is supposed to be menacing, authoritarian man made into a monster by his unrelenting pursuit of alien justice. Instead, he comes across like a smarmy milquetoast. The contrast is dazzling. Pierce is the main antagonist of the season, but he’s not believable for a second.
  • Native American mysticism. I’ve written in the past about the unpleasant tendency in media to exoticize Asians, but this is a phenomena that can affect all people of color. Another prominent example is the frequent othering of Native Americans, especially around areas of religion and spirituality. It’s possible for anyone who’s not Christian to be a victim of this kind of flimflam, but the wide variety of unfamiliar religious traditions practiced by hundreds of Native tribes leads to, at best, a messy syncretism in white media. You also probably know I’m not a super big fan of using people of subaltern identities as plot devices for the betterment of the white, straight, able-bodied characters. Both of these sins are on display here: our alien pals resurrect Nasedo with magical Indian healing stones, dispensed over the course of a trilogy of painful episodes set to generic mournful flute music. At least it wasn’t as painful as when the X-Files did it…multiple times across several seasons. Sigh.
  • Michael & Maria. So some genius decided that since Max & Liz work so well, we need to pair off the other four main characters. Thankfully, the romance between Alex (Colin Hanks, Fargo) and Isabel (Katherine Heigl, Grey’s Anatomy) takes up a scanty amount of screen time in the episodes I watched. I wish I could say the same about the subplot between Michael and Maria (Majandra Delfino.) You see, Max & Liz are a perfect fit for one another, so we’re given a ham-handed contrast in the form of a fire & ice pairing. The actors are good at convincing me that they dislike each other, but the sparks are decidedly artificial. I could buy that they’d hook up once to hate fuck, but the tepid drama of the on-again/off-again romance on display here is the stuff of an exhausted writer’s room.

Final Judgment: 5/10. When all’s said and done, there’s a lot to like about Roswell, but you have to put up with a lot of crap to get there. Besides that, the sci-fi elements and the soapy teenybopper fare will put enough people off in equal measure that I doubt it’s on the top of anyone’s list. I will say that some of the episodes I watched were quite good—the show generally does better when its sense of humor shows through.

NEXT TIME: Yes, it’s another kid’s show—but it’s one I remember from my own youth! Check back next week to hear about Talespin!

Case Study 54: Roswell, Episode 22–“Destiny”

Case Study 50: The Vampire Diaries, Episode 52–“Ordinary People”

Original Airdate: November 3rd, 2011 on The CW

Whoo, it’s been a while. There are two reasons for that. First, a plague has fallen on the house of Oryx, and second, technical difficulties prevented me from my glorious plan of covering what would surely be one of the seven wonders of television history: NFL Rush Zone. Instead, I’m covering The Vampire Diaries, and since it’s a fast-paced soap opera for the hoverboard generation, I had to watch quite a bit of it to feel comfortable offering an opinion on any one episode.

Strengths

  • Rich mythology. Okay, let’s get this out of the way upfront. Diaries was obviously intended as a Twilight cash-in. The first movie in the series had come out the year before and had made billions of dollars, so the dude that brought us Dawson’s Creek dug around in the backlist and found some likely looking YA fiction from the early 1990s. So Diaries takes a minute to find its voice and walk away from its derivative roots. That isn’t helped by the fact that the central romance between Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev) and Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley) is as inert as a noble gas, except with a noble gas, there’d be chemistry. Despite the game efforts of Dobrev and Wesley, the writing does not rise to the occasion. Thankfully, you can’t fill seven seasons and three seasons worth of spin-off with “teenagers” making moon eyes at one another, and in the three seasons I sampled the show cultivated a rich and rewarding mythology of vampires, werewolves, witches and even the occasional ghost. There were intricate, internecine conflicts between families and schemes that took centuries to unfold. There were magical artifacts, spells and counterspells. If you’re willing to give this show a chance and overlook its kiddy-bye exterior, you’ll find that it’s really quite immersive.
  • The originals. If you’d obediently clicked the link about the spin-off, you’d have found out that it is in fact called The Originals. I bring this up because the eponymous Originals are the subject of tonight’s episode, which chronicles nothing less momentous than the invention of vampires! They all stem from the Mikaelson Family, and what with vampires being immortal, the Mikaelsons are mostly still alive and have shown up to cause problems for Elena and friends. Think about all the drama that can well up in three generations of any given family. Think of all the grudges, overlooked slights, simmering resentment and unresolved tension, much of which only dissipates upon death or estrangement. Well, now imagine your family never died and have been clashing swords with one another for a goddamned millennium. In this episode, Elena seeks to break the compulsive control that malevolent Original Klaus Mikaelson (Joseph Morgan) has over Stefan. She thinks she can do this by uncovering the history of the Originals, so she seeks out his sister Rebekah (Claire Holt.) What happens next reveals that the family history that Rebekah had believed for centuries was all an ex post facto lie spun by Klaus, and we get all the dirt via flashbacks. All the best family dramas involve murder, magic and revenge.
  • Damon. Many of the characters on this show are two-dimensional, but you can’t say that about Stefan’s brother Damon (Ian Somerhalder.) Initially, Damon is set up as the evil, bloodthirsty alternative to the goody two-shoes, domesticated Stefan, but it becomes clear pretty quickly that despite his violent tendencies and his ever-present irreverent sarcasm, he cares a lot about Stefan and Elena. In fact, he cares too much about Elena, frequently butting heads with Stefan over her affections. The first time we see him in this episode, he’s sneaking up on Elena in a dark cave to scare her just for the sake of being an asshole. Later, he goes drinking and whoring with the help of some vampire compulsion. But at a key moment, he admits to Stefan that he’s trying to save him from Klaus’ control because he owes him for saving his life time and time again. He really does care! But when Stefan mocks him for it, Damon kicks his ass and leaves him lying on the ground. Sure, the bad boy with a heart of gold is a stock archetype, but Somerhalder executes it with real flair and Damon feels much more like a real person than many of the other leads, perhaps with the exception of Caroline (Candice King.)
  • Ripper Stefan. Normally, Stefan Salvatore is as boring as white toast. I had hoped for the sake of the show that they’d find a way to make him interesting and give Wesley a chance to prove himself as an actor. One fun way to do that is to give him a Dark and Mysterious Past. You see, he wasn’t always a brooding pretty boy hoping to meet the love of his life while lurking around a cemetery. No, he used to be what’s called a “Ripper,” a vampire that has renounced his humanity and just loves to tear people apart to feast on their delicious blood. Hooray! He managed to eventually get himself under control, but then Klaus undid all that hard work. So the Stefan on display here is mean and angry and all-around evil, and the show is that much more interesting for it.
  • Well-written closing scene. You could accuse this show of taking itself too seriously. It’s surrounded by a heavy aura of portentousness, perhaps to set itself apart from its wacky cousin, Buffy The Vampire Slayer. But the final scene here is both light-hearted and deft. Elena comes home from a long day of pumping Rebekah for information only to find a fully-clothed Damon sprawled on her bed. He’s there both to harass her and because he expects her to want to yell at him for using typically unorthodox methods to try and get through to Stefan, but she just wants to sleep and crawls into bed (weirdly fully clothed.) As the conversation unfolds, they realize they’ve come out of the day better than expected–Damon was confronted by Klaus’ vengeful father, Mikael (Sebastian Roche, Wer,) who was able to successfully extract information from Stefan by threatening Damon’s life, and Elena turned Rebekah against Klaus by revealing his murderous deceit. Thinking about Rebekah, Elena muses that Rebekah’s just a girl who “lost her mom too young and who loves blindly and recklessly, even if it consumes her.” My respect for the show skyrocketed when neither Elena or Damon pointed out that Rebekah shares these traits with Elena. The scene ends on a high note, too–Elena points out that her experience with Rebekah underscored the importance of familial bonds for vampires, which means that Elena can’t save Stefan from himself. Only Damon can do that. If that’s true, the viewers will reap the dividends—Damon and Stefan are a much better pairing than Stefan and Elena. That fact alone has no doubt brought us pages and pages of turgid, incestous slashfic.

Weaknesses

  • Elena. Diaries isn’t the first show to have a bland, featureless protagonist designed to let the viewer project themselves onto the hero of their favorite soap opera. Consider also Grey’s Anatomy, Lost or even Wayward Pines. Just because it’s a common flaw doesn’t make it an endearing one, though. What exactly are Elena’s characteristics supposed to be, anyway? According to Wikia, she is “popular, sporty, smart, compassionate, empathetic, caring and friendly.” Who wouldn’t want to be those things? Though I will say she’s sporty in the same way Melanie C is sporty, which is to say she has maybe once looked at a soccer ball. Also, compassionate, empathetic and caring all mean the same thing, and Elena is as smart and compassionate as she needs to be to keep the plot moving forward. I’m just glad that Elena’s evil doppelganger Katherine exists to give Dobrev something to do.
  • Witches. Witches on Diaries are primarily represented by members of the Bennett family, and in the present day that means main cast member Bonnie Bennett (Kat Graham.) Bonnie is one of the few people of color on the show, and this means that nearly all the witches we see are black. It also means that we’re frequently seeing black witches who only exist to help out their white vampire friends, including in historical situations that have been whitewashed to remove actually existing racial tension. This is ironic considering how the show frequently uses human-vampire relations as a metaphor for prejudice and fear of difference. Other bloggers have written extensive, on point explorations of race on this show, so I’ll just point out that we’re given another example here of black witches existing only to serve their white buddies and being given absolutely nothing else to do with their kickass magical gifts. You see, Original matriarch Esther Mikaelson (Alice Evans, 102 Dalmations) is a witch herself, but on her expedition to the New World she is accompanied by another witch and healer, Ayana (Maria Howell, Addicted.) Now, Ayana is supposedly Esther’s best friend and mentor and the heir to all-powerful immortality magic. So she presumably taught Esther everything she knows about magic, giving Esther the central role in vampire mythology while Ayana gets shunted to the sidelines. All she gets to do here is to point out to Esther that creating vampires in an anti-werewolf arms race won’t be a net gain for either the Mikaelsons or the world at large, and that’s it. Witches are just as cool as vampires. They can do magic, for fuck’s sake! If you’re going to turn them into magical negroes, at least give them some thoughtful, creative stories of their own.

Motivation: Knowledge. If Elena is going to bring Stefan back to his dopey self, she needs to learn the secrets of the Originals.

Final Judgment: 8/10. This show seems lightweight at first blush, but there’s a lot going on here. Be aware that the quality of this show is wildly inconsistent—some of the episodes I watched were full of cringingly stupid moments and tired cliches, and the more time spent on Elena’s love life, the worse off we all are.

NEXT TIME: I return to the Marvel animated universe by reviewing the original 1960s Spiderman cartoon! I’ll do whatever a blogger can.

Case Study 50: The Vampire Diaries, Episode 52–“Ordinary People”

Case Study 23: Brothers & Sisters, Episode 58–“Spring Broken”

Original Airdate: March 15th, 2009 on ABC

I mentioned at the end of the last post that Brothers and Sisters may be the same show as Parenthood, and it turns out that’s not really a joke. I could have sworn I had previously watched the pilot of Brothers, but I eventually realized that I was in fact remembering having watched the pilot of Parenthood. I can see how I would get confused–both deal with overly large semi-functional families of means in California having gentle adventures on broadcast TV. I think the Parenthood characters are meant to be more middle class, but their palatial Bay Area homes belie that.

Both shows also feature alums of Six Feet Under and I’d argue that this is no coincidence, as Brothers and Parenthood are each watered down versions of the HBO series. In our series du jour, it’s particularly resonant. The first episodes of both Brothers and Six feature a semi-estranged child of a good-sized family returning to LA and deciding to stay and make amends in the wake of their father’s death. Both shows go on to reveal the secret adultery of the patriarch and both chronicle the ensuing struggles over maintaining a hold on the family business, though the Walkers are a few tax brackets higher than the Fishers. Both shows go on to chronicle the romantic lives of the various family members, including a queer brother and a wayward youngest sibling. Both shows frequently use disastrous family dinners as set pieces. Hell, both families’ last names are nouned verbs suffixed by “-er.” Mr. Oryx and Cake Boss also observed that Brothers is what Arrested Development would be like if it were an equally ridiculous humorless drama. For this review, I watched four episodes of Brothers: the pilot, “Spring Broken,” and the episodes immediately preceding and following.

Strengths

  • Tawdry soap opera fare. I can’t lie–I love a good soap opera. Actually, I should amend that. I love a soap opera. It doesn’t have to be good. Brothers certainly isn’t. But the dramatic plotting definitely is. This episode alone features brother Justin Walker (Dave Annable) pining for his star-crossed lover, Rebecca Harper (Emily VanCamp, Revenge,) though Justin’s pining doesn’t prevent him from considering the merits of some Spring Break strange, and the danger of Justin relapsing into dissolute drug addiction is ever-present. It also features sister Kitty Walker (Calista Flockhart, Ally McBeal) coping with her failing marriage and her husband Robert McCallister’s (Rob Lowe, The West Wing) recent heart attack. Of course, Robert isn’t taking his recovery seriously enough and could keel over any moment, perhaps due to a strenuous round of Wii bowling or an inspiring speech. He’s going to be making a lot of inspiring speeches, since he’s also running for governor. Meanwhile, Kevin Walker (Matthew Rhys, The Americans,) the aforementioned queer brother, spends the episode bemoaning the lack of passion in his marital bed and the Walkers are struggling with the awkward integration of their illegitimate brother Ryan Lafferty (Luke Grimes, Fifty Shades of Grey) into the family circle. And then there’s the main plot arc of the Season 3 episodes that I watched–asshole brother Tommy Walker (Balthazar Getty) is on trial for felony embezzlement conducted in order to seize control of the family business, Ojai Foods, which is currently under the oversight of his father’s former mistress, Holly Harper (Patricia Wettig.) Oh, and Holly’s Rebecca’s mom. So there’s definitely plenty of grist for the ol’ drama mill.
  • Strong ending. I find it fascinating when a show can turn its weaknesses into a strength, and this is a good example. As I’ll discuss below, the show’s characters are generally underwritten and have somewhat incoherent motives. Frequently this is in service of the plot. When Justin asks Rebecca to intervene on Tommy’s behalf by asking her mother to drop the charges, she refuses for totally understandable reasons–her and Justin’s relationship is already tenuous enough without Rebecca putting herself right in the middle of the increasingly fraught environment created by Tommy’s trifling bullshit. But a few scenes later, there she is, intervening on Tommy’s behalf. Why would Rebecca do that? Oh, because the story needs to keep moving forward? Okay then. In “Spring,” Justin and Kevin take Tommy to Baja California to forget his troubles. They also have the ulterior motive of persuading Tommy to cop a plea as opposed to taking his chances with a trial. As expected, Tommy eventually caves towards the end of the episode with no obvious reason for the change of heart. I was rolling my eyes until we hit the final twist–he didn’t actually change his mind at all. After Kevin and Justin return from breakfast, they find Tommy gone. It’s a breath of fresh air in a show that otherwise tries very hard to take interesting stories and make them bland.

Weaknesses

  • Underdeveloped/uninteresting/unlikable characters. Look, just because you have 17 different people on this show doesn’t mean that any of them are interesting. I’ll give credit where credit is due–they seem to be taking Ryan’s character in somewhat of an interesting direction, and I think sister Sarah Walker (Rachel Griffiths, Blow) is actually quite well-drawn. However, vast swaths of the enormous cast are inert if not actively inconsistently characterized, as mentioned above. This is a shame, as Brothers has a not inconsiderable bench of acting talent to draw from, but it’s almost entirely wasted. To add insult to injury, the two characters we spend the most time with are actively obnoxious and dull as opposed to just dull. Kitty’s something of a passive-aggressive blowhard. This isn’t surprising, since she had a stint as a Republican talking head on a Hannity & Colmes-style televised shouting match. She’s positioned as the theoretically sympathetic protagonist of the pilot, wherein she tells her queer brother about his politics by saying that “[he] can just keep on laughing and watch the rest of the country pass [him] by.” Uh, enchanting. When Sarah tries to give Robert advice about his relationship with Kitty, she advises that Kitty’s most passionate when she’s arguing with someone and that if she’s not arguing with someone it’s because she’s stewing with bitter resentment. Yeah, I absolutely want to spend my Sunday nights with that person! Meanwhile, Tommy is about a million times worse. His default position is a derisive sneer. In that same conversation in the pilot, Justin invites his siblings to a bar and Tommy asks him if they admit “unemployed hipsters who have seen every episode of Scooby-Doo.” Topical reference there, Tom. He’s still sneering at Justin in season 3 and takes every opportunity to dismiss his ambitions to go to medical school. It’s not just Justin, either–when his mom Nora Walker (Sally Field, Forrest Gump) finds out about the embezzlement and is distressed that Tommy is following his father’s footsteps in the world of white-collar crime, he throws it back in her face by pointing out that she sure loved the standard of living afforded to her by her late husband’s crimes. Of course, it’s likely most of that standard of living came from his successful business with only a small part consisting of misused funds, but it doesn’t matter to Tommy, because he takes every possible opportunity to be shitty. Does he have even an iota of remorse for the felony he committed? Nope. The fact that he’s guilty isn’t even in dispute. He thinks his motive to keep Ojai under his family’s control is all the explanation he needs. I wouldn’t mind unlikable characters as much if there was even a glimmer of depth on display here, but it is not to be.
  • Rich white people problems. Look, it’s not like shows about rich people can’t be glamorous, interesting or entertaining. Just look at Dynasty, Mad Men or Arrested. The problem is that Brothers is none of these things, so the viewers get to enjoy a bunch of whining about relatable problems like a failing gubernatorial campaign and getting caught embezzling. The details of Tommy’s embezzlement are a thrill ride of shell companies and shady land deals, which is obviously the essence of water cooler television. There’s a very telling and interesting moment in “Spring,” but I really don’t think the writers intended for it to have thematic resonance–instead it’s carrying water for two separate plot threads. The moment I’m talking about is an argument between Kitty and Ryan over Marxist theories on family. The first purpose this serves in the plot is to remind onlooker Sarah of what it looks like when Kitty is trying to bond to add fuel to her later conversation with Robert. The actual conversation mostly involves them talking past each other and saying little of substance, and we’re quickly delivered to the second plot purpose as Kitty waxes poetic about the deep bond between her and her newborn baby. This serves to send Ryan off in tears with passions inflamed about the mysterious death of his mother. The show predictably elides any actual Marxist theories of family, and they prove surprisingly relevant to Brothers. In a nutshell, Marx saw the traditional nuclear family as an institution designed both to maintain class hierarchy and social control. Indeed, the whole dumb plotline everyone finds themselves enmeshed in here is all about Tommy flaunting the law in order to keep Ojai and all the money it generates in the family. Every family member dutifully lines up behind him. None think he should be punished for breaking the law. They bend over backwards to try and keep him from experiencing any consequences, bringing all their social capital to bear. This is despite the fact that he’s constantly treating them all like garbage. This is despite the fact that he doesn’t show an iota of gratitude, much less remorse. No one says that they do this because it will keep them wealthy. That would be vulgar. Instead, they put up with Tommy’s wheelbarrows full of bullshit all in the name of family. He’s our brother, so we’re therefore obligated to defend his odious behavior and get him out of trouble–and the unspoken risk is getting cut out of the money pool. This isn’t to say that they don’t also love him and want the best for him. The thing about toxic social institutions is that they tend to propagate themselves and do their dirty work without the workers even realizing it’s happening. The argument as shown in “Spring” winds up being about the “artificial” bond between mothers and children, which is an obviously stupid strawman, so, again, I doubt any Brothers writers are taking Marx & Engels seriously. The embezzlement plotline isn’t the only evidence of the Walkers as an organization designed to perpetuate their own wealth–at the start of the show, beloved patriarch William Walker (Tom Skerritt, Alien) employs not one, not two, but three of his family members. In the episode after “Spring” where Sarah takes Tommy’s place at the business, it’s framed as a glorious return, only sweetened by the Walkers coaxing the board into dropping the charges. The nadir of this insufferable plot is when Nora joyously compares this “miracle” to a little girl’s leukemia going into remission. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. Of course, the object of Tommy’s scheming is Ojai’s CEO and William’s former mistress, Holly. This, combined with Ryan and Rebecca, highlights the show’s bizarre focus on legitimate patrilineal distribution of wealth. The more you think about it, the more it comes across as decidedly medieval. It’s even worse when you remember that eldest son Tommy begrudges both Holly and Nora access to William’s wealth. That’s how sexism, the family and capitalism collide, not some nonsense about the artifice of motherhood, or whatever the fuck. It’s an almost perfect irony that a pristine case study in the art of normalizing capitalist conceptions of family contains an interlude of arguing against that theory, but I’m choosing to believe it’s incompetence and not malice. Here’s hoping, anyway. One final note: it’s not just the Walkers who see nepotism as a god-given right in the quest for filthy lucre. Guess where Rebecca works? Go on, you’ll never guess.
  • Repetitive. It’s not a great sign when you’ve already run out of ideas by Season 3. The big embezzling storyline that’s sucking all the air out of the room is not even the first big embezzling storyline on the show–that would be the fallout from the dramatic revelation of William’s embezzling in Season 1. Ryan is also not the first illegitimate child contended with in the Walker family–a large chunk of the first season was taken up by the entrance of Rebecca, who was first presented as William’s illegitimate daughter with Holly. In Season 2, another Dramatic Revelation established that Rebecca is in fact the daughter of one David Caplan (Ken Olin, Thirtysomething.) Oh, so all that time spent keeping the Dramatic Revelation of Rebecca’s existence from various members of the Walker family a Big Secret was a waste of time? Yup. As was all that time spent reluctantly and gradually integrating her into the family circle. And what’s the payoff? Why, we get to do all that stupid bullshit all over again with Ryan! And because Ryan and Rebecca aren’t related, that means that they can enjoy sexual tensionI And that means that Ryan and Justin can fight! YAAAAAAAAAY

Motivation: I’m sure it will shock you to learn that a show called Brothers & Sisters is driven by stories about family.

Final Episode Judgment: 5/10. Despite its many flaws, Brothers meets the basic criteria of an entertaining soap opera, but it doesn’t do so particularly gracefully. There are plenty of better prime-time soaps out there. As far as the other episodes I watched for research, the pilot also merits a 5/10 and “Taking Sides” and “Missing” only deserve a 4/10.

NEXT TIME: Will I ever get sick of reviewing children’s television? Find out when I check out We Bare Bears!

Case Study 23: Brothers & Sisters, Episode 58–“Spring Broken”

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)