More series business

How many different series can a person watch and still keep them all apart? Right now we’re watching Angel, House  M.D., Carnivale and Heroes and Grey’s Anatomy, I’m rewatching Six Feet Under, Battlestar Galactica and Life on Mars, we’ve just finished Fringe and we’re waiting to continue The Sopranos and Buffy. Well, at least no one can accuse me of being a total elitist snob when it comes to telly series…

I enjoyed Fringe because it fulfilled my post-X-Files FBI-investigating-weird-shit cravings. Is it a good series? Not particularly – it’s repetitive, some of the acting is dubious and with half the episodes I think that I’ve seen them before, only Mulder and Scully did them better. It’s great turn-off-your-brain TV fast-food, though, and I’m looking forward to more Leonard Nimoy in season 2. “It’s all lies. But they’re entertaining lies. And in the end, isn’t that the real truth?” (Damn you, YouTube, for not having a clip of that scene!)

The answer is, "No."

Grey’s Anatomy has been something of a guilty pleasure of mine, and throughout much of season 4 it wasn’t all that much of a pleasure, to be honest. The series’ problem – well, main problem – is that they’ve got a number of very good actors and even the middling actors know their parts by now, but the writing (especially with respect to character development) covers the whole range from maudlin to obvious to plain bad, with the occasional strong scene. If the series could decide to be a comedy, it wouldn’t matter that most of the characters are written to be highly unprofessional so much of the time (typical example: some patient is dying and needs urgent care, and doctor X decides that this is the right moment to ask doctor Y why they didn’t have sex the previous night – remind me not to get ill in TV Seattle…). It takes very good writing to make the constant jumps from quirky comedy to serious (melo)drama work if the characters aren’t to come across as nincompoops at the mercy of the script. Season 5 had many of those weaknesses, but it had enough strong moments to keep me watching. Still, there are some developments and storylines that just annoy the hell out of me: a resident at a big Seattle hospital going more or less bankrupt from one day to the next because Daddy cuts her trust fund? Swapping one interesting lesbian character for cute but eternally bland blondie because you want eye candy rather than an actual character? Derek Shepard yet again going all pompously self-righteous, and still no one takes one of those circular saws to his perfectly coiffed head?

If we all gang up and stab him with scalpels, it shouldn't take too long...

In the meantime, I’m rather enjoying where Angel season 3 is taking us. Yes, there were a couple of false steps – Gunn and Wesley going all mooney over Fred wasn’t cute, it was just annoying, and having it go on for several episodes made me want to go Angelus on them all – but it’s fascinating to see how Angel, Cordelia and especially Wesley develop during the season. Just 2-3 more episodes to go until season 4 – and I’m ignoring all those people who say that it’s one of the worst seasons ever in the Whedonverse, because it’s something we have to get through before season 5 and “Smile Time” and the (wait for it) bitter-sweet finale. (Yes, Lucy, I put that there just for you…)

Oh, before I forget: gotta love this recent article in The Onion: Next Tarantino Movie An Homage To Beloved Tarantino Movies Of Director’s Youth.

Fight, fight, fight, fight, fight, fight, fight. How many fights is that? A lot.

And finally: I’ll be writing a weekly entry at The Best Shows You’re Not Watching, alternating between Six Feet Under and Life on Mars. You can find the first one here. Let me know what you think!

(A Matter of) Life (and Death) on Mars

Okay, that pseudo-clever title has already pretty much taken it out of me… Last night we watched the final episode of Life on Mars. There was definitely some good material in there, some very atmospheric bits – but on the whole, it struck me as a cop-out. They didn’t seem to have the courage to go with the ambiguity they’d evoked and instead ended on what felt like a reprise of the season 1 finale.

***Spoilers to follow! Don’t say I didn’t warn you!*** 

Sam’s decision to go back to, or stay in, 1973 by means of (real? dreamed? imaginary?) suicide was sold to us as the right decision, but that just doesn’t gel with Sam’s ambivalence (to say it mildly) about the past he was stuck in. He comes out of the coma (or not – there were hints either way, but nothing that suggests the writers really thought about it) and no longer feels at home in the 21st century? That’s okay: it makes sense, since he’s been in this other reality for so long, and it’s interesting for the character. But don’t try to tell us that the best of all possible solutions is for him to choose the immature, made-for-TV Boys’ Adventure that is Hunting with Hunt. Don’t dangle ambiguity in front of us and then say, “But it’s all okay, because 2007 means boring meetings about grey areas, but 1973 means driving too fast, beating up suspects and feeling good and manly about it!”

The sad thing is, the ending could have been much, much worse. It could have been much more hackneyed. But it gave in to the infatuation with Gene Hunt, as did Sam. And I guess that in the end, I felt that there could have been more to the series than “DI Tyler, or How I stopped worrying and learned to love that misogynist, racist, homophobic dinosaur Gene Hunt (and you can, too!)”.

Ah well. This means that now we can get started on Battlestar Galactica season 3. Yay!

A season too far…

We watched another two episodes of the second season of Life on Mars yesterday, and while they were more enjoyable than a couple of the ones earlier this season, they still felt like variations on a theme – and minor variations at that. The impression I got was that they had material for a total of eight or nine episodes, at most. Instead they decided to stretch it to two seasons and 14 episodes altogether, and as a result much of the impact was lost. This could have been a little gem of a series, and instead it turned out to be an okay execution of a clever premise, extended past its sell-by date.

You doity rat (redux)

Quite a few series are milked, the episodes becoming tired, stale rehashes of earlier material. Even fans say that The Simpsons have been going on for too long (although they also argue that the last season has been a marked improvement). Same seems to go for Spooks (another BBC series by Kudos, the producers of Life on Mars), Buffy (I’ve seen few defenses of season 7), The X-Files or most of the Star Trek series.

And then you get series that are killed untimely. Firefly and Deadwood come to mind, but I’m sure there are other examples as well. (Futurama, perhaps, ending with one of the best episodes of the entire series, but it’s being revived right now, so I’ll wait and see.) Series that, quite simply put, had much more to say. Series that quite often also expected something from the viewer, that made demands – for instance, that you tuned in every week. You can’t really tell a good, sustained story if viewers may look in once a month, at best.

Death by trampoline?

To be honest, I can only think of a handful of series that managed to end when they should have. Six Feet Under is a candidate. M*A*S*H, perhaps, although the jury’s out on whether the series maintained its quality, got better, or simply got smug and self-righteous. Most people loved “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen”, but there are some who hated it with a vengeance for being Alan Alda’s soapbox.

I guess that, given the choice, most fans would prefer more material of their favourite series even at the price of diminishing quality. But it is frustrating to see them putting out yet another cop series or medical soap but at the same time not allowing more complex, more ambitious – and, admittedly, less audience-friendly – material the breathing space it needs.

Lost, but not forgotten

Since my love went on holiday today, we caught up on the series we’re watching yesterday, starting with Six Feet Under. One of the things I appreciate about the series is that neither the writers nor the actors feel that a story is only good if the characters are likeable. They have the courage to make the protagonists truly flawed – not the sort of flaw that you’re secretly supposed to like. (Did anyone mention Gene Hunt?)

Is that you, Butch and Sundance?

Nate, especially, has become a lot less instantly likeable. In the first season, he was the closest to an audience stand-in. He was, or seemed to be, the most normal member of the Fisher family. By season 4, he’s become self-righteous and self-pitying, but he’s still the character. He wasn’t rewritten or changed, he simply grew. And that’s one of the reasons why the series feels so real to me, in spite of a couple of melodramatic twists and turns: the characters aren’t static. Life has an impact on them, gradually shaping them, moving them in interesting directions. There are few series that manage to pull this off as well. No, scratch that – I don’t know any series that do it this well.

Lost, the second item on yesterday’s TV menu, doesn’t really do subtle character development (although it may be there, sometimes, in a handful of the characters). What it does, though, is this: the characters who die are given great send-offs. I remember finding Boone really boring… and then they went and made him interesting, and then they killed him off! It was pretty much the same with Shannon, arguably the most annoying character in the series, but then they made me think, “Hang on, perhaps she’s not that bad after all!” And then, BLAM! Cue one paranoid, pissed off Latina with a handgun, and bye-bye, Shannon!

Yesterday we watched Eko’s Last Stand. Now, Eko… Him I liked more or less from the very beginning. He was an intriguing character, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje has charisma. Eko’s spiritual side was a great foil to the increasingly fanatical Locke in season 2. His backstory made for a nice change from most of the more ‘whitebread’ character bios. But yesterday we watched him being picked up by Smoky, slammed against trees and then tossed to the ground like a broken toy. And what do we get in the way of new characters? Nikki and Paulo, the Slumber Twins. Almost makes you wish that the two of them meet a sticky end very, very soon…

The last in the trio of TV series we watched yesterday was Deadwood. I’ve written about the characters before, apart from which I’m way too tired to make this entry much longer. Let me just say, though, that I love the series’ casting. And I get a certain sly, postmodern kick out of Milch’s casting of Garret Dillahunt, first as Jack McCall in season 1 (he’s the one who shot Wild Bill Hickock), and then as Francis Wolcott, geologist, sexual deviant and the person who buys Wild Bill’s very last letter. I imagine their casting calls come on a Moebius strip.

Jack McCall…

… and Francis Walcott - twin brothers separated at birth?

It’s the freakiest show (not)

One of the series we’re currently watching is Life on Mars season 2. I enjoyed the first season – definitely fun TV – but so far season 2 has mostly failed to grab me. It felt too much like same old, same old. After all, we get it by now that the ’70s were sexist and racist. We get that Gene Hunt is a misogynist dick, albeit with occasional flashes of wit, who allows liberal viewers to vicariously enjoy their own reactionary urges. The first four episodes of the season were competently executed but not much more, and with most of them I felt that they would have been improved by being the length of your average US series episode rather than the usual BBC hour. After all, if your intrepid, flare-trousered heroes stumble around for ten, fifteen minutes trying to solve the case after the audience has figured out who dunnit, things get a bit boring.

Episode five, though, was a distinct improvement. Not only was the format changed slightly, with Sam Tyler out of the policing loop for most of the episode, and the writing cleverer, the episode also sported a gorgeous parody of “Camberwick Green” (which I’d never seen, but the sequence works nevertheless) at the beginning. If every episode were that much fun, I wouldn’t have spent the previous paragraph kvetching about the series.

However, I am doubtful that the planned ’80s spin-off, Ashes to Ashes, will be much good. It seems that they’re pretty much going for more of the same, just in ’80s neon aesthetic and with a woman police officer (played by Keeley Hawes) stuck in the past. It’s difficult not to go for heavy teen sarcasm and say, “Like, wow, how original!” And even though I enjoyed Hawes’ character Zoe in Spooks, she wasn’t exactly the strongest actor on that show. And I definitely don’t get enough of a kick out of Gene Hunt kicking nonces to be very excited about Ashes to Ashes.