Laceyvision - US TV Bonanza
As the American TV season draws to a close, Laceyvision takes a look back at what tickled it's fancy and what tickled the gag reflex at the back of it's throat.
If a show set behind the scenes of a fictional, SNL-style topical sketch show sounded like an unusual concept a year ago, we now have two contrasting examples indicating how to go about making one. You could take the Aaron Sorkin route, and produce a mind-numbingly tedious comedy-drama with no laughs and loads of slow-motion shots of people smiling, and most likely find yourself cancelled at the end of your first year. Or, as SNL alumni Tina Fey did, you could produce a snappy, critically acclaimed sitcom and get renewed for another season even though your viewing figures weren't the best ever. Fey plays the showrunner of The Girlie Show, which new network boss Alec Baldwin decides to use a vehicle for mentally unwell star of brainless Eddie Murphy-style comedies, Tracey Jordan ("you hire Tracey Jordan, you gotta know he comes with a tattoo of a mythical chinese dragon on his face!" is probably my favourite line of anything this year). The trio of Fey, Baldwin and Tracey Morgan (who, confusingly, plays Tracey Jordan, or perhaps the other way round) and the decision to have them produce a frankly poor show (Studio 60 was fatally skewered by it's respective show-within-the-show not being as funny as any of the characters thought it was) provide many splendid moments.
It's largely character-based humour, semi-documentary style, cutaway gags and surreal bent give 30 Rock a slightly Arrested Developmentish feel, which helps to plug the massive hole in my heart caused by it's cancellation. While it's sort of the new benchmark for how good a sitcom can be, in 30 Rock and The Office (more on that shortly) NBC has an hour of comedy that does come close, especially when Will Arnett is guest starring. Why isn't Will Arnett in more things? He should be in all things (other guest stars this season - Isabella Rossellini, Pee Wee Herman, Nathan Lane, Rip Torn). 4/5.
Andy Barker PI
I'm not quite sure how the process of comissioning or decomissioning series goes about in America, but at some point this season NBC found themselves with six unaired episodes of this already cancelled sitcom starring Andy Richter as an accountant who takes on a Private Detectives old office and unwittingly soon finds himself taking over cases, and broadcast them while 30 Rock was on a break. It's a shame that the decision wasn't taken to pick up a full season, as this is a real grower. It certainly deserves its place on the air more than Scrubs currently does. Being broadcast alongside The Office and 30 Rock is making the beleagured hospital comedys self-conscious zaniness and repetitive plots seem especially tired, although Janitor will ensure that I keep watching. Good old janitor. Andy Richter is a likeable, self-effacing lead and noir-style silliness amongst small time businessmen is a great setup for a show. The supporting cast has Tony Hale (Buster from Arrested Development - hooray!) and familiar face Harve Presnell as the not-quite retired PI Lew Staziak. I'm a sucker for lines like "somewhere in hell, someones sticking it to a quality broad" (Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid is my favourite comedy) and this has plenty of them. If you're looking for something to tide you over the vast, TV-free wasteland of Summer, this would be a good bet. 3.5/5
To begin this review by saying how much The Office has now blown away it's UK counterpart would be to damn it with faint praise, as I've never thought of Gervais' creation as being anything more than intermittently engaging and dismally repetitive. I never felt sure how much the series ability to create occasional resounding poignancy was reliant upon it having a backdrop of admittedly realistic utter boredom to contrast with.
Elements of the original still echo through the remake, with Pam (Dawn) and Jim's (Tim) troubled courtship and a branch merger still playing a large part in the plot. With the benefit of longer US seasons however, these situations have all proved more complex, and created more avenues for humour. Certain other changes have been made necessary by this excess of screen time - it was stretching credulity to have David Brent keep his job as long as he did, and so Michael Scott (the characters US counterpart played by Steve Carell) has had to occasionally prove his worth. This has made for a much more intriguing character, one who can use his basically honest, good nature to close business deals but who is riddled with insecurity in his personal life. David Brent always erred on just the wrong side of lovable for his antics to make enjoyable viewing, and it was only when the show allowed him to develop a shred of humanity that the show discovered it's winning formula (sadly this occurred about ten minutes before the end of the final ever episode, but it's a baton the remake has willingly picked up). While the mockumentary style remains intact, there is less of an attempt to create an air of realism, which is fine by me because the UK version usually left me feeling awful and empty inside. The constant attempts of the US Office employees to make the best of their situation leave me with a warm feeling that deep down, people are basically good and nice. Few series have the ability to have you crying with laughter out of one eye and crying with sadness out of the other eye, but The Office has nailed it.
Much humour still comes from Michael Scott getting into embarassing situations, but is very generous with it's humour considering Carrells recent ascent in the film world. For the showrunners it would have been very easy to court ratings by turning this into a mere star vehicle, but the shows reliance on the "boss" character is another element to have disappeared in the remake. It's hard to remember many laughs in the original coming from anyone besides the major players - maybe the moment when Keith said "Minge". By contrast, every single employee in the US Office is a distinctly bizarre and amusing creation. Really I could fill this entire review with things Kevin has said or things Creed has done, which alone would make this show funnier than anything else on television at the moment. In fact, fuck it, here's one of Creed's blog entries.
Hey-o, everyone out there in SyberWorld. It’s old Creed Bratton coming at your again, here from my perch as a Quality Assurance Manager at Dunder Mifflin paper. Just a few observations on the world around me.
What do you guys think is the best kind of car? To me, you can’t beat motorcycles. They’re small, and dangerous.
I got into a car accident yesterday and I just took off. It didn’t look too bad. The guy was making a big deal out of it, but come on – dogs don’t live forever.
Sometimes when I’m sick, or feeling blue, I drink vinegar. I like all kinds: balsamic, vodka, orange juice, leaves.
Working in an office is fine, but I’d rather be a millionaire. [Elaborate on this. It’s interesting. Maybe Trademark it, too.]
Today in my office where I work as Director of Quality Assurance, we went to the beach for some reason that was never adequately explained. When we were there, our manager told us to eat hot coals. I thought that was a little bit untoward so I ate a fish. Then a woman I have literally never seen before in my entire life started talking very loudly about something involving Halpert. She was agitated, I’d say. From what I could guess, she was definitely on drugs of some kind, perhaps cocaine, or maybe ‘drines. Also, she is a knock-out. She reminds me of a young Daphne Du Maurier. Also, I stupidly ate the fishbones. I told myself “never again” after the last time, but then you turn around, and bam, they’re in my mouth. I also ate 55 hot dogs in 15 minutes, which is a world record.
Everybody remembers: “April showers bring May flowers.” But no one remembers how the rest of that goes. Which I find so frustrating.
Prediction: the Orioles will win the World Series over the Pirates in seven games.
Prediction: the space program will be renamed the Outer Space Program by 2060.
Prediction: someday we will be able to travel faster than sound. We will “break the sound barrier.”
Top three moments of the season -
1. Andy singing "Zombie" by The Cranberries
2. "Michael. This is the opposite of safety."
3. "You and me are done."
In light of an entirely lacklustre and disappointing season finale, the overwhelmingly positive review of Heroes I've been putting together in my head during it's debut season doesn't seem so appropriate. 20 episodes in, the series was still oozing promise. From a simple premise - all around the world, people start developing unusual superpowers - it had blossomed into a gripping, clever drama and yielded two of the best single episodes of genre TV all season ("Company Man" and "Five Years Gone"). Right at the beginning of the series, we saw an impish, excitable amateur time-traveller foresee an apocalyptic explosion at the centre of New York. In the immediate present, an assortment of characters coming to grips with their burgeoning superpowers found themselves terrorised by a mysterious killer, hunted by a shadowy agency kidnapping them and implanting them with tracking devices, and a scientist brought to fruition his fathers work tracking the genetic code which identifies these heroes. As the series progressed after Christmas, the narrative began to focus as various characters clashed, there were enticing glimpses of over-arching plans and the cast expanded to include fantastic work from Christopher Eccleston, Malcolm MacDowell and er, Eric Roberts. The importance of gradually revealed familial connections prevented the "micro" aspects of the show (character interaction and development etc) from being overshadowed by the "meta", the central mystery of the show (one reason why "Lost" ratings have suffered lately). For a few episodes, it was the most best-paced "mystery" type show ever. But when it returned for it's final batch of episodes, Heroes was starting to look a bit weak. While it's arguable that given the archetypable nature of superhero stories it was inevitable that certain aspects of the plot would be reminiscent of established superhero stories, the reveal that the shows villain had nicked his plan exactly out of Alan Moores seminal "Watchmen" comic was a bit disappointing. Still, an episode set five years in the future, exploring what could happen if the heroes failed in stopping the long-foreseen explosion, was fantastic enough to hold out faith that something special was coming in the finale - apparently one story told in three acts, across the last three episodes. If it had been told across one episode, it could have been alright I suppose, but these three episodes were repetitive, disappointing, predictable, illogical - a whopping great anti-climax. In order to describe why I'm going to have to delve into spoiler territory, so if you've not seen the most recent episodes broadcast in the US, I'd skip the next two paragraphs.
Basically, the big mystery is, all the old people know eachother. Some of them have superpowers too, and having failed in some vague attempt to "change the world" for good with their powers in the 70s or whatever, they've set about their plan. The connection between Lindemann, The Haitian, The Agency, Eric Roberts, Grandma Petrelli etc is just that they're all in cahoots. Oh! Things that have seemed important, or indicative of some more complex solution - like Christopher Ecclestons characters presence in Agency flashbacks - turn out to be entirely pointless and basically coincidental. Shadowy characters of dubious morality - like the Haitian, who has worked both in service and obstruction of Lindemanns plans - turn out to have just been morally dubious for no particular reason, and no explanation is proferred as to why. While Hiro's father is seen alongside these older "heroes" in flashbacks, he intstructs his son on defeating their plan in the finale, and yet no explanation for his split loyalty is offered either. I think we're basically meant to assume that they all had a big falling out one Christmas in the 80s. Which would all be alright, if any of the main plotlines had any kind of interesting conclusion either. Sylar, the killer of heroes, who does mysterious things with their brain to absorb their powers (presumably he puts them up his bottom, which is why it's never shown), has intimated himself in the central "explosion" plot by killing and absorbing the nuclear powers of Ted Sprague. This means that all season, the explosion which it has been presumed comes from Peter Petrelli (he's basically Empathy Boy, who absorbs peoples powers simply by meeting them) absorbing the volatile nuclear energy of Sprague and going boom actually comes from him absorbing Sylars power. Except, Sylar foresees himself doing the explosion, and goes to see his Mum to find out why he'd ever do something so beastly. Sound gay yet? It gets gayer. If you thought that the scene was set for a showdown between the two most powerful heroes in the shows Universe, with the loser exploding and destroying the city unless the other heroes can do something about it, you'd be a better writer than the people who write Heroes. What actually happened was three full episodes of running around corridors, Empathy Boy hallucinating Richard Roundtree in a wheelchair telling him that "You've had the power all along, Peter - the power is LOVE. Go and save the world with your LOVE POWER" which is such a queer moment I thought they were going to sing a duet, a twenty second slap-fight between him and Sylar, Sylar being defeated by a tiny chinese man running towards him from quite a distance and stabbing him despite Sylar having all kinds of telekinetic powers, Peter exploding anyway but being *flown up into the sky so it would be safe*, various characters long forshadowed "important role in events" being either a brief role in the dismal brawl or to get shot. It was a sudden and fatal loss of momentum for the series - a sequence with two near-omnipotent heroes facing off with help from time travellers, psychics and allsorts ended up feeling like the climax of an episode of Dallas, or something.
Where this leaves my opinions of the series as a whole is uncertain. Does it make Five Years Gone a worse piece of television in that it's now known none of it's promises will be kept (a brief snatch of a tussle between Peter and Sylar glimpsed through a closing door is more exciting than the entire final episode)? It's feasible that budgetary issues hampered the scale of the finale, but does that make up for the fact that the writing was so leaden at times? Even an episode like Company Man, a masterclass in tension, pacing and plotting, is most enjoyable because of it's foreshadowing, now rendered a bit duller by the sloppy ending. A glimpse of "Volume Two" was full of enough cliffhangery promise of time travel-based excitement to come that I'll probably give it another shot come September, but it'll have to work very hard to regain it's previous ranking in my estimations. 2.5/5
I'd like to be sitting here telling you that Heroes is the great show I thought it was a few weeks ago, but sadly I'm going to have recommend it as little more than a pacey soap opera version of X-Men with a lot of mouth but eventually, no trousers. That I thought it was a convincing rival to Lost now seems laughable. Which brings me on to...
Perhaps in answer to the percieved threat of Heroes sniffing around it's ankles, Lost took the opportunity with it's own series finale to firmly re-establish itself as the best thing on telly by fucking miles. The special two-hour episode entitled "Through The Looking Glass" was superb from start to finish - riveting, tense, moving, dramatic, eventful, mysterious and climaxing with a twist that threatens to turn the entire concept of the show on it's head. I'm going to go light on spoilers, as this should be watched with a clear head, even if you're doing so on DVD in five years. This season has primarily focused on the interaction between our castaways and their tormentors on the island, the mysterious "others". The finale brings that section of the story and many other lingering plot threads to definitive and satisfying conclusions, whilst foreshadowing in a number of marvellous ways that we're nowhere *near* out of the woods yet. The announcement was recently made that Lost would return for three more seasons, each of sixteen episodes - totally forty eight episodes, the same as two more of the season lengths we're used to. This puts us safely over halfway in the story, and the firm end date should end speculation that the writers are making the story up as they go along, something which I think was already disproved by the circular nature of this seasons storytelling, with many plot elements from the shows earliest episodes figuring into events. I've never held with the complaining that often goes on about Lost - the show has always treated it's viewers with respect and intelligence, and as such should have earned a degree of patience, trust and respect. Lost's ability to inspire debate and confound expectations is its greatest strength but fans continually insist on answers to their own specific questions. Perhaps that we assumed the eventual rescue of the Lostaways would form part of the overall series conclusion contributed to the impatience, which might die out a little now we know that something a bit stranger is going on. Giving simple answers quickly would not only nullify the shows appeal, it would mess up the telling of what is clearly a large and complex story, and one which as the finale proved, attempting to second-guess is almost pointless. The show ends this series in a state of transition - it is no longer simply setting up a multitude of elements in the complex Lost universe, it is beginning to explain them, and move towards what promises to be a startling couple of seasons. The sense of endless possibility that the first season had has returned in spades, with the drama poised to take any number of completely fresh directions. I feel entirely comfortable saying that Lost is fated to go down in history as one of the greatest TV shows ever - it has simply mastered the medium of television, and nothing approaches it's consistency, it's production values, it's acting, anything. Lost pisses on literally everything else from miles up in the sky. 500/5.
Top 3 moments of the season -
1. "Help me."
2. Hurley driving the van onto the beach - I literally cheered aloud
3. Desmond being confronted by the old woman in charge of time, or whoever she was
Incidentally, Lost has inspired a love of serial TV drama that I've satisfied with two seasons of Twin Peaks, but now I'm chomping at the bit for more, preferably something in a similar genre, so comment away.