Case Study 84: Laverne & Shirley, Episode 5–“Falter at the Altar”

Original Airdate: March 2nd, 1976 on ABC

When sitcom fans in the 70s weren’t busy watching Archie Bunker yell racial slurs or Mary Tyler Moore throw her hat into the air, they were waist-deep in 50s nostalgia.* It all started with a weirdly successful rom-com anthology series. Love, American Style churned out more than a hundred episodes, which makes me wonder if Ryan Murphy is currently shopping American Love Story. One particularly well-received segment led to Happy Days, an omnipresent television juggernaut. It ran for eleven seasons and spawned a gob-smacking five spinoffs, and without it we wouldn’t have half of the best bit characters on Arrested Development. (In fact, Arrested may never have existed, seeing as how Ron Howard was an executive producer.) The ties between Laverne & Shirley and Days weren’t exactly bone deep—Laverne (Penny Marshall) dated The Fonz for a grand total of three episodes—but L&S was a roaring success in its own right, eventually airing 178 episodes. What works and what doesn’t?

Strengths

  • Cindy Williams. The entire cast does well here, but it’s really Williams’ episode. The premise is that her buddy Laverne has agreed to a hasty marriage proposal without really thinking it through, and Shirley’s conscience and sense of duty to Laverne obligates her to try and intervene. The show was renowned for its use of physical comedy, and you don’t really see too much of that here, but it’s the little moments that sell you. When Shirley finds out about the proposal, she chokes on her drink and Williams spins it into gold. Her chemistry with Marshall is perfect, even this early in the show’s run. There are emotional valences to the story that fail or succeed on their own merits (see below) but Williams credibly displays a range of emotion that you don’t always get in a standard sitcom.
  • Weddings. Shakespeare famously made weddings synonymous with comedy, and the tradition persists to this day. Why? A wedding is the biggest party most people will ever throw and it is ripe for disruption. There’s the solemnity of a church ceremony just waiting to be interrupted—in fact, a traditional ceremony has a moment specifically inviting interruptions, and of course L&S gleefully seizes the opportunity. There’s tons of family and friends mixing together who may not get along. There’s an expensive, ornate, top-heavy cake. While disrupting a funeral can also be hilarious, weddings are a naturally happier occasion and so everyone’s in a better position to laugh it off. We see Laverne’s wedding rehearsal, and while it’s not quite a debacle on the level of the pilot for The Brady Bunch, we at least get to hear greaser/wacky neighbor Squiggy (David Lander) respond to a request to give the bride away by saying “Okay, take her, I ain’t stoppin’ ya.” What are comedies good for if not taking the wind out of stuffy, nonsensical social institutions?
  • Strong character work. You learn something revealing about both of these women over the course of 22 minutes. Shirley cares enough about Laverne to risk a big fight by giving her a wheelbarrow full of wise yet unsolicited advice. I’d venture that most people in her situation would bite their tongue if their friend was considering a bad marriage. Play it out in your head—if I tell you your fiance is an asshole and you’d be a fool to marry him, what happens to our friendship after you go through with it? Not Shirley—she can’t stand the thought. She really does care about Laverne. And what does it say about Laverne that she’d consider this arrangement in the first place? You’d need to be a specific combination of insecure to settle so quickly and laid-back enough to accept the situation for what it is. The thing is, it seems more or less acceptable! Sal (Paul Sylvan, Busting Loose) isn’t an asshole. Laverne is quick to point out that he’s handsome and respectful and kind. She’s not wrong that it’s somewhat childish and unrealistic to expect fireworks and goosebumps to follow naturally along behind romance. You don’t have to have the love of a century to have a reasonably happy marriage that lasts a lifetime. Of course, Shirley talks Laverne out of it, but their conversations are revealing without painting either party as an asshole. It’s some pretty deft characterization, all things considered.

 
Weaknesses

  • Sappy moments. The show isn’t willing to accept that Laverne isn’t exactly wrong about marriage sometimes being a compromise. It tips its hand when we get treated to swelling violins beneath Shirley’s big speech about love and goosebumps and Laverne’s confession that she’s worried she’ll never hear another proposal. Look, I like these people but I don’t like them well enough to go on a Titus-Andromedon-grade face journey.

 
* Why did seventies audiences have such a hard-on for the fifties? A cynic might say that whitebread middle America missed the halcyon days before black people won a seat at the table, because there’s nary a black or brown face in the entire Happy Days expanded universe outside the occasional Very Special Episode.

Final Judgment: 6.5/10. I struggle with these pre-Simpsons comedies. They pre-date the days when a sitcom told five or six jokes a minute. The problem is that while L&S has a strong ground game and good fundamentals, no guts were in danger of busting. Nary a knee was slapped. I can’t really give a full-throated recommendation to a comedy that isn’t actually that funny, but that’s not because it’s badly-written witless tripe. When you’re waiting for the roars of laughter from the studio audience to subside between every wry one-liner you’re not left with much actual content at the end of the day. So I’m splitting a hair. I promise not to turn this into Pitchfork.

NEXT TIME: Hey, it’s been awhile since we’ve gone digging around through the YA bargain bin, and fate has dealt us a Pair of Kings.

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Case Study 84: Laverne & Shirley, Episode 5–“Falter at the Altar”

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 35: The Shnookums and Meat Funny Cartoon Show, Episode 7–“Step-Ladder To Heaven”

Original Airdate: February 13th, 1995 on first-run syndication

At the end of my last review, I promised to explain what foul truffle I’ve exhumed from the deep roots of television to present to you today: The Shnookums and Meat Funny Cartoon Show. Yeah, you’ve never heard of it. It ran for 13 episodes. It was a spinoff of Marsupilami. Yeah, I know–you haven’t heard of that one either. Marsupilami was a spinoff of Raw Toonage. I swear I’m not making these up. Toonage’s tenuous hold on a cartoon you might actually remember is another one of its spinoffs, Bonkers. Remember Bonkers? Some kind of predatory cat that was also a cop and had trouble with the ladies for some reason? Yeah, you can go back to forgetting Bonkers. Shnookums was the decidedly less notable creation of Bill Kopp, responsible for Eek! The Cat and the Whammies from Press Your Luck. You can’t make this stuff up, folks. Anyway, it’s divided into three segments focusing on different characters and it’s annoying garbage from wall to wall. Will I explain how and why in a profound level of unnecessary detail? You know I will.

Strengths

  • A unique setting for the Pith Possum segment. That’s right, Shnookums narrowly avoided the ol’ goose egg with one slightly interesting idea. It’s a tired-as-hell Batman parody, but the Batman character is a possum (Jeff Bennett, Johnny Bravo) and instead of Gotham City, he patrols a city of woodland creatures deep in a forest. This makes for some interesting visuals. The plot deals with rampaging termites, and they eat the police station, so the commissioner or whatever (Brad Garrett, Everybody Loves Raymond) summons Pith Possum “down to the police pile of sawdust right away.” I chuckled. The end.

Weaknesses

  • Misogyny. Jesus, my kingdom for a TV show where I don’t have to put up with this. I guess we’ve got to get the kids hating women early! Shnookums (Jason Marsden, A Goofy Movie) and Meat (Frank Welker, Scooby Doo) are a chaotic dog and cat duo that is legally distinct from a much more famous chaotic cartoon dog and cat duo from 90s kids cartoons. In their segment, they die and go to heaven, where the housepet version of St. Peter (uncredited) calls them to the carpet for their many sins. One of these involves our heroes going on a blind date, but their dates turn out to be ugly, so they ditch them. Because the only value women have is contingent on their fuckability! Taking notes from Henry the VIII, I see. Later, S&M learn that there are sexy succubi in hell, so they clamor to be sent there. Yep, all the best kids’ cartoons are about housepets wanting to fuck busty demons in hell. Where were the Parents’ Music Resource Center people for this shit? Let’s leave the worst parts of Looney Tunes in the past, shall we? The joke’s on S&M, though–the succubi are actually the ugly dates in disguise. Haha! There is no punishment worse than sex with an ugly woman!
  • Incoherence. Sometimes S&M are house pets. For the blind date interlude, they’re inexplicably dressed as 50s greasers, because I guess that goes along with the fact that they take their dates to the drive-in-movie, or perhaps this is meant to be a scene from their callow youth, or who the fuck even knows. The worst offender on this score is the third segment, which is about cowboy Tex Tinstar (Bennett.) For some reason, unlike the other two segments, the third segment is serialized, which is a bizarre choice in the first place. The entirety of the segment here is a dramatic fight between Tinstar and his foes. It starts in a saloon. It continues to a carnival. Then the characters dive into some dude’s bathtub and all of a sudden they’re under the sea, with sharks and so forth. There’s no resolution. The set up is minimal. It’s cacophonous and disorienting. I get that cartoons are supposed to be wacky, but usually there’s a narrative through-line and a vague gesture at adherence to a setting. Why have a cartoon about a cowboy if you’re not going to use the Old West setting? There’s also five more characters than there need to be. It’s just a hot mess.
  • Shitty voice acting. You’d think that industry pros like Welker, Bennett and Garrett would be able to acquit themselves more nicely here, but it might be a man behind the curtain situation. Welker and Bennett just use the Scooby and Bravo voices respectively. It turns out there’s a reason Scooby-Doo doesn’t get much dialogue. The Bravo voice makes sense on Johnny Bravo, but on an old west cowboy it’s simply confusing, and Bennett hadn’t refined the voice, so much of what Tinstar says is nigh incomprehensible, adding to the general feel of incomprehension plaguing that segment. Garrett voices the antagonist of the Possum segment, one Shirley Pimple, and as you may have realized he has no range whatsoever.
  • Not funny. Look, “funny” is in the name of the goddamned show. It should at least deliver on that. No? Okay then. I mean, if “Shirley Pimple” doesn’t tell you all you need to know about the humor on display here, what will?
  • Derivative. Yeah, you guessed it. Take one part Ren & Stimpy, one part Animaniacs and one part Tiny Toons and you get fetid, grey mush. I understand the rationale the Disney execs used–these other things are popular! Let’s just copy off their work! Surely then we will be successful! Of course, the reason people liked the latter cartoons is because they were original and funny and charming. But it’s a lot easier just to churn something out of a Play-Doh Children’s Cartoon Fun Factory, isn’t it?
  • Clip show. Ugh, this is like a compendium of what not to do. Mercifully we’re only treated to a single recycled montage of S&M misbehavior from this show and Marsupilami, but that’s one too many. This is episode seven of your show and you’ve already run out of fresh material? BOO MINUS.

Motivation: Too incoherent to tell. I guess S&M want to get their dicks wet on that sweet succubi gash, so that’s love/sex for you. And Possum is trying to save Possum City from destruction, so we’ll chalk that up to survival. Couldn’t tell you about Tex Tinstar.

Final Episode Judgment: 1/10. The only reason this didn’t join Mary-Kate & Ashley in the annals of ignominy is because I was feeling charitable. Yeah, that up there? That’s what charitable looks like.

NEXT TIME: Did you know that Nick-at-Nite makes original scripted programming? Read my review of See Dad Run to learn more!

Case Study 35: The Shnookums and Meat Funny Cartoon Show, Episode 7–“Step-Ladder To Heaven”

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 8: Major Crimes, Episode 55–“Targets of Opportunity”

Original Airdate: July 20, 2015 on TNT

Crime dramas have been an evergreen staple of broadcast entertainment since the days of radio and now it seems they’re more popular than ever. I checked a few recent ratings charts and on average 8 of the 25 most highly rated shows are crime dramas, and that’s just the big primetime networks. I’m a little surprised it’s taken me this long to get to one! The reason this genre is so popular is obvious–a mystery is intrinsically interesting. There’s the obvious fact that finding out who committed a crime is a natural plot driver, but there’s also an opportunity to dig deep into rich veins of emotion and to address complex social issues and public institutions. There’s ample opportunity to work on multiple levels.

Major is a spinoff of The Closer, which was a reliable ratings hit on cable but missed me entirely. This alone speaks to the glut of crime dramas–I’ve sampled a lot of shows and enjoy the genre but never got around to this major hit series. Major is also a bit unusual for a spinoff in that it retains much of the cast and setting of the previous series, promoting a supporting character to the lead and keeping its creator, James Duff. From what I’m told, it also carries over Closer’s approach to storytelling, mixing intensely plotted procedure with emotional stories about the personal lives of the characters. It’s a descendant of NYPD Blue as opposed to Law & Order.

A quick note: This episode’s stems from events in Episode 35, “Jane Doe #38.” I watched that episode for background as well, but I won’t discuss it except as it’s relevant to the episode under review. I will say that it’s excellent and exponentially better than “Targets.” Considering that the story set up in that episode is still churning 23 episodes later, it might not be a bad place to jump into Major if you’re wanting to come in at a high point.

Strengths

  • Compelling mystery. The strength of the mystery du jour is what crime procedurals live or die on, and Major acquits itself well in this regard. It takes the Columbo approach where the viewer knows who is responsible and has the pleasure of watching the cast piece things together. Two cops have been shot and killed and the LAPD’s Major Crimes unit is pulling out all the stops to find the killers. Their best lead is a witness with ties to real-life gang MS-13, who have been major contributors to the astronomical crime rates in Central America’s blood-soaked Northern Triangle. The witness is named Rico Fornes (Carlos Pratts, McFarland, USA) and the bulk of the episode is spent tracking him down; he also carries the bulk of the hour’s emotional freight. Only Rico (and the viewer) knows that the murderers were posing as police. This was entertaining and reasonably sophisticated for 43 minutes of TV, but it could still be improved–see below.
  • Sleek. The production and direction of Major is very of the moment, which makes sense since it just aired a few months ago. Even considering that, though, everything is beautifully shot–the opening scene wrung mawkish, maudlin pathos out of its admittedly serious subject matter, but I was willing to forgive that since so much tender love and care had obviously been put into Hollywood-level staging. Mary McDonnell’s lead performance as Cap. Sharon Raydor is exquisite, complex and understated and is a fresh casting choice in the endless crowd of police procedurals. The genre lends itself to blustery scenery chewing–see Raymond Cruz’s (Breaking Bad) portrayal of Det. Julio Sanchez.

Weaknesses

  • Unsatisfying feint. While I like the way the show handles the red herring of MS-13, it’s not great that a potential MS-13 connection is way more interesting that what actually turns out to be going on. G.W. Bailey’s Det. Lt. Louis Provenza even lampshades this. “Well, you’d hope that they’d be terrorists or master criminals and that our people had died fighting the worst of the worst–but they were a couple of ex-cons playing dress-up and shaking down old people.” Yeah! You’re right! I would hope that they’d be terrorists or master criminals! Like MS-13! Especially since they don’t do a very good job of fleshing out the actual explanation. I realize it’s been done before, but it seems like an unnecessarily elaborate setup to impersonate cops to facilitate armed robbery. As Robert Gossett’s Chief Russell Taylor takes note of in the first scene, police/public relations are low right now. The show does not articulate the reason relations are low, which is of course the extensive and high-profile protests about police murdering black and brown citizens in cold blood. Part of the public response to these murders is to increase recording, documentation and scrutiny of police, especially in situations where they’re openly pointing guns at old black men at traffic stops, as is the case here. A one-off or ongoing story about MS-13 would have been fascinating, but I would have settled for actual internal police corruption as opposed to two yutzes with costumes. I just think it’s a bad idea to tease viewers with more interesting plotlines than what you actually end up delivering.
  • Paper-thin B plot. One of the key aspects of this show is that Raydor has adopted a wayward youth, Rusty Beck, as played by the extremely foxy Graham Patrick Martin. Rusty was abandoned at age 15 and in “Jane” developed an emotional connection to 15 year old victim Alice Herrera, another child who tried (and failed) to survive in a harsh world. Even after we learn who killed her and why, her background is shrouded in mystery and Rusty is determined to find out who she was. In “Targets,” Rusty has a sketchy contact and he uses police resources to clandestinely run a background check under the guise of helping the frantic double murder investigation. This is not really enough to sustain a subplot, even with the flaccid attempt at adding an emotional angle in the form of Rusty’s guilt about…not helping? Pretending to help? Which doesn’t make sense, since presumably he spent some time actually running legitimate checks as he was asked to do. And it’s not like he’s using police resources for a shitty reason–he’s trying to honor a murder victim, not find a drug hookup. As I said above, the Alice story as originally presented is gold–give this follow-up plot the chance to breathe it deserves.

Final Episode Judgment: 5/10. This episode of Major Crimes is competently executed, but unless you’re an insatiable crime drama fan, it’s not a reason to come back for more. Don’t write off Crimes entirely, though–I’d give “Jane” 8/10. The verdict is out on whether or not that episode is representative in terms of quality.
NEXT TIME: Danny Phantom.

Case Study 8: Major Crimes, Episode 55–“Targets of Opportunity”