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Sinking Ships: Chuck Versus The Fandom

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

I’m going to talk about this week’s Chuck, Chuck Versus the Mask, and the discussion will include spoilers, but they’re the sort of spoilers that ought not to matter to anyone. You know what comes after ‘boy meets girl’, right? Then these aren’t  really spoilers. You understand narrative momentum, don’t you? Of course you do. But you’ve been warned. Also, Torchwood spoilers, but if you’re not up-to-date on that by now, heaven help you.

brandon-routhBrandon Routh

So, this season on Chuck, they introduced a new contrivance to keep Girl and Boy apart, and they introduced the characters of Other Girl (played by a former Lana Lang), and Other Boy (played by a former Superman, above). And do you know what happens when Boy and Girl break up, and Boy meets Other Girl and Girl meets Other Boy? It’s called ‘a complication’. These are what they put in stories to keep the story interesting. These are what the put in stories to keep Boy and Girl apart so that the story can keep on going, because when Boy and Girl get together, the story is over.

You know all this. You don’t have a housekeeper who comes in and waters you twice a week. You know how this works.

And Other Boy is a guest star. And Other Girl is a guest star. And it’s a spy show, so chances are one or both of them will turn out to be a traitor, and one or both of them will end up dead, and Boy and Girl will get back together only for another complication to get in their way (or the show will get cancelled). And everyone waiting for Boy and Girl to finally get together once and for all can enjoy the long ache of deferred gratification, which is what a story is. Love stories, horror stories, adventure stories, war stories, comedies; they all rely on tension. Stories happen in the gap between expectation and fulfilment.

You know all this, because no-one sews your gloves to a long piece of string and feeds the string through the arms of your coat.

But certain fans of Chuck don’t seem to know this. TV reviewer Alan Sepinwall blogged about the latest episode, in which Chuck attempted to steal a mask of Alexander that blatantly looked like a mask of Agamemnon (travesty), and fans of the show revolted. But not about the historically  inaccurate mask, which would have been understandable; about the Other Boy and Other Girl thing.

Talk on Sepinwall’s blog is of how these plot developments have destroyed the show or torn out its heart; “that was the worst episode ever they killed the characters” (sic). One commentor (or possibly the same one - a lot of the negative comments are anonymous) even suggested a boycott, employing what must be history’s worst invocation of Howard Beale’s, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more”. (Beale’s cry is against the complacency of comfort represented by the pablum on TV; this anonymous fan is crying out to be pandered to by his or her television set. “Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything.”)

howard-bealeAnonymous

The coy nickname for these people is ’shippers’, meaning cheerleaders for a specific fictional relationship. Sometimes they cheer for relationships that are unlikely to ever happen - Wilson and House in House - and sometimes for relationships that are guaranteed to happen - Boy and Girl in Chuck. Either way, they’re usually nutty fundamentalists, with the former category sometimes insisting that their imagined relationship must happen, and the latter so protective of their promised happy ending that they would rather kill the show they love - as a successful boycott would do - than let the story play out.

Take, for example, Ugly Betty. With Ugly Betty officially cancelled, some of that’s show’s fans are adamant that Betty and her boss, Daniel, absolutely have to get together. One even suggested that the characters are contractually obliged to fall in love, because it’s what happened in other versions of the show (adapted from a Colombian telenovela). It’s not impossible that the hook-up could happen in the show’s last remaining episodes, but Ugly Betty long ago abandoned any attempt to play with that relationship as a will-they-won’t-they, because the two actors clicked better as friends than as potential lovers. They are not Boy and Girl.

Then there’s Torchwood, which never quite seemed sure how it wanted to handle its Boy-Meets-Boy romance until the time came to kill off one of the characters, at which point we found out it was a tragic love story. This lead a lot of rabid fans to promise a boycott, or to campaign for the character’s ressurection, and those bruises don’t seem to have faded yet. Boy has since flirted with Some Other Boy, and fans are furious about that as well, as if the character must forever remain chaste in memory of his one lost love, who was really only ever presented as a notch on his bedpost.

Now, I grant you that the death was written in a cheap, pointless way that robbed it of any dramatic weight, but that doesn’t justify the fans’ sense of entitlement in demanding that the death be undone and the writers responsible be flogged in the streets.

I don’t know if the internet invented the feeling among fans that they ‘own’ a show and that its creators should be indebted to them, or if the internet just allowed them to converge in frightening numbers, as it has for so many other fringe fetishes. The show Chuck might actually be grateful for rabid fans, as they may have helped it get renewed when it was on the brink of cancellation - but that in turn may have increased the feeling among some fans that the show should do what they want.

Fans are entitled to have an opinion, and they’re entitled to share it, and they’re entitled to stop watching a show that they don’t like. Where they cross a line is in thinking that their opinions represent a consensus, and that this false consensus should be used as a cudgel to batter the writers. If it were up to fans, shows would all skip past all the obstacles and go straight to the happy ending. That’s not how stories work. Being a good heckler doesn’t make you a good writer. Or, to put it another way; shut up, fans.

Another Opening, Another Show

Monday, May 18th, 2009

Five years ago, in one new pilot season, the TV gods gave unto us Lost, House, Desperate Housewives, Veronica Mars and Deadwood. It was a good year. There hasn’t been a year like it since.

In fact, the most recent couple of TV years have been especially terrible, thanks to the writers’ strike. There have been very few good shows, and even fewer renewals. Chuck, Gossip Girl and The Big Bang Theory are some of the only survivors from 07-08, which is good news for underperforming shows from the 08-09 season, like Castle, Dollhouse and Better Off Ted. The closest things to bona fide hits this past season were The Mentalist and Fringe. Nothing truly popped, and studio execs are desparate for success.

So what looks good? Here are my picks of the shows I’m looking forward to in the coming season - assuming they get a season order.

glee

Glee (Fox)

Nip/Tuck’s Ryan Kelly goes back to high school (he was responsible for the underrated Popular, which gave the world Christopher Gorham, Leslie Bibb and Sara Rue) with a show about a school choir. It looks like it’ll be all the usual jocks/geeks/cheerleaders stuff - a well-tapped mine that still sometimes turns up gold - but with added musical numbers, and a regular role for the always excellent Jane Lynch. I suspect it’ll be the most fun thing on TV this year. We’ll get a sneak peek tomorrow, when they preview the pilot after the American Idol final.

Tremé/Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

If the HBO name is no longer enough to get you excited about the show, these two have some other names that may work for you. Tremé, about musicians in post-Katrina New Orleans, is the new show from The Wire’s David Simon. The neighbourhood of Tremé, also called Storyville, is next to the French Quarter, and it’s the birthplace of jazz. I love jazz and I love New Orleans, so this intrigues me more than The Wire ever did.

Boardwalk Empire is the work of Martin Scorsese, and it’s a show about Atlantic City gangsters in the 1920s - ‘Once Upon A Time in The Sopranos’. With a cast that includes Steve Buscemi, Kelly McDonald and Michael Pitt, it promises some heavyweight dinner theatre - but the pilot may not get made until Scorsese is free to direct, so this could get bumped to another year.

eastwick

Eastwick (ABC)

The Witches of Eastwick has already inspired a movie, a musical and a sequel novel. Now it’s a TV show, with Rebecca Romijn as one of the three suburban witches, and Paul Gross as Darryl Van Horne, aka the devil. Casting the former Due South mountie in such a role strikes me as odd, but he is eerily ageless and rather irresistible, so it could be a good fit, and it will be nice to see him back on TV. The movie’s Veronica Cartwright, best known for vomiting cherry stones, also has a role in the show.

Masterwork (Fox)

As I mentioned this past weekend, Former Friday Night Lights star Scott Porter is my choice to play Captain America in the movie - but he may be too busy if his new show does well. Porter plays a globetrotting FBI agent tracking down art thieves. Hijinx ensue. Who doesn’t love hijinx? It sounds expensive, so it may need to do incredibly well in order to succeed - and, frankly, nothing does incredibly well anymore - a fact that seems to have been lost on the people who decide which shows to cancel or renew. Ratings ain’t what they used to be.

Flash Forward (ABC)

I am looking forward to this, but I’m also slightly dreading its likely inevitable phenomenon status. It’s another JJ Abrams show, and with Lost bowing out this coming season, ABC is lining this up as a replacement. The concept is that the whole world suffers a blackout (leading to death and destruction, yay) and everyone sees a flash of their future five months hence. You can be sure that these flash-forwards will set up lots of intriguing ‘how do I get to there from here’ mysteries. Stars include John Cho and Joseph Fiennes. ABC also has a remake of the lizard alien show V in the works, starring The 4400’s Joel Gretsch and Firefly’s Morena Baccarin.

Those are the shows I have high hopes for. There are also a few I’m wary of, so consider this fair warning:

Lost & Found (NBC)

A gritty cop drama from the Dick Wolf stable, about a young maverick LAPD detective who teams up with a grizzled older partner to work cold cases. It could hardly be more formulaic, but it does boast Katee Sackhoff and Brian Cox as the leads, so that gives it some small hope of being interesting.

vampirediaries

Vampire Diaries (CW)

I doubt your committment to sparkle vampires. The CW is cashing in on the Twilight thing with this adaptation of another young adult novel series about high school bloodsuckers. You shoulda wrote one of those! You’d be rich now! This one stars Ian Somerhalder as, I don’t know, ‘Jedward Scullen’, probably.

Eva Adams (Fox)

A sexist sports agent finds himself trapped in the body of a beautiful young woman. If it gets made (and I don’t think it will), it will surely be diabolical, but it does raise one interesting question; how would they handle the love interest? Is the male-to-female lead character going to get it on with boys (gay!) or girls (also gay!)? Like Ugly Betty, this is an adaptation of a South American telenovela.

Human Target (Fox)

This is based on the DC comic about a detective who impersonates his clients in order to protect them. The premise has a little in common with Dollhouse, but without all the rape. However, word has it that the show has ditched the comics’ impersonation angle. If so, it’s ditched the ‘human target’ premise that made this show intriguing (and, uh, gave it its name). Then again, if you want an actor who can exhibit range, craggy faced Mark Valley seems about as wise a choice as, say, Eliza Dushku.

Legally Mad (NBC)

This one didn’t get picked up, so we already know we’re never going to see it, and that’s a reason to be cheerful. This was going to be yet another tedious ‘wacky lawyer’ show from David E Kelley, who gave us Ally McBeal and Boston Legal: Ally McBeal For Boys. This one starred squeaky-voiced Kristen Chenoweth and squeaky-voiced Loretta Divine, so it would only have been audible to dogs. To cap it all, it was called Legally Mad, for God’s sake. We dodged  a bullet there, folks.

That Was The Geek That Was

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

Idol is a day later this week, so in the meantime, some thoughts on the past few days’ geek TV highlights. Spoilers follow for Dollhouse, Battlestar Galactica and Heroes.

doll-house

Dollhouse: It has been pre-ordained that episode six was ‘the good one’. The Dollhouse press tour has been assuring us, “We know this is a programme only a blinkered Browncoat could love, but we promise we’ll give you legitimate cause to like it if we last until episode six”.

It’s a weaselly strategy to rely on the indiscrimate dedication of die-hards to excuse a show’s creative failure. It’s also a doomed strategy, especially when your ‘game changer’ episode goes up against the Battlestar Galactica finale.

Inevitably all the people who were saying that Dollhouse was awesome from the get-go are now shifting their positions slightly to say that Dollhouse is awesome as of now. But did episode six really push Dollhouse from ‘joyless vanity project’ to ‘entertaining genre show’?

Honestly? Not yet, no. But there were two elements that helped elevate episode six. First of all, it was an ‘arc’ episode, dedicated to giving some much-needed context to the show’s unpalatable sex-puppet premise. Second, it balanced out Eliza Dushku’s glossily varnished wood with a few more interesting textures. Most of the characters are still so loathsome that the show remains a tough taste to acquire, and it’s a bad sign when the comic relief character with all the Joss Whedon dialogue is the creepiest rapist at Rape-o-tech, but it was good for the show to spend a little more time filling in the colours of the supporting cast.

The trouble is, I suspect that next week we’ll be right back to another rapetastic woman-in-peril plot with Dushku at its centre. Not that we got away without a woman-in-peril story this week - in fact there were two women in peril; one raped, the other merely forced to perform sex acts as part of her programming, and then threatened with rape. Rape is drama, you know? Delicious, exploitative drama.

toasterBattlestar Galactica: There has been plenty of eye-rolling about the BSG finale. I only came to the show in the last few months, and I have to admit that I thought the ending was… consistent. I’m surprised that people were expecting anything more from it, but then BSG has been a rather brilliantly executed shell game from the start, and the secret of a good shell game is that the audience always believes it’s not going to get ripped off. Now there are articles arguing that BSG is one of the greatest TV shows ever made - some people still don’t know their watch is missing.

For months I’ve seen people discussing who or what the Cylon god was going to be, as if they thought the show was going to offer them a sci-fi explanation, to which my response was, “why can’t it just be God”? Guess what? Turns out it’s just God. So I wasn’t disappointed with the BSG finale, but I also wasn’t invested in the idea that the episode would be a codex to unravel all the mysteries. BSG was a show that made everything up on the fly. Its philosophical trappings were never more than brightly coloured bunting, and there was never a consistent ideology informing the whole thing. It was a dumb show that convinced a lot of people that it was smart.

The great nerd hope ended with a whimper. No thrilling space battle, no satisfying answers, and no impressive death count. The villains found a few interesting ways to kill themselves, and the heroes went running through the long grass. As for Kara Thrace, the undead tomboy and much-vaunted harbinger of death; it turned out she was aaaaall a dreeeam.

heroes-tins

Heroes: Like Dollhouse, this was a pre-ordained turning point for the series - producer Bryan Fuller’s first chance to re-impose himself on the series since he left at the end of season one. I may be falling into the same hopeless blinkered trap as the Whedonistas, but I have to admit, I enjoyed it. It’s the first episode of Heroes in a long, long time that I’ve watched without having to roll my eyes or feel insulted.

Here’s why it worked:

  • For the first time in a story called ‘Fugitives’, there was solid pacing and a sense of tension arising from the characters being, ooh, fugitives.
  • No Sylar; no Claire. Not that I dislike either character, but they both get far too much attention, especially Sylar, who ought to be kept in a glass case marked ‘in case of lull’. The show has a stupidly big cast. It needs to strike a better balance. This episode did that.
  • Speaking of which; they culled the cast. Tracy Strauss made the big pointless sacrifice - two Ali Larters down, one to go - and Daphne got a touching send-off. Along the way, both characters remembered their personalities and their previously established relationships - as, in fact, did everyone in the story! Oh, context, how we have missed you!
  • They also brought back some of the cast, but in a good way. We all knew Rebel would turn out to be Micah, but seeing him and Janice back in the show gives us a sense of a rounded universe. Consequences, there you are! Were you off larking about with context?
  • The baby Parkman story could have been a disaster - the comedy misadventures of Hiro and Ando tend to wear a little thin - but this time around there was actual humour. I smiled! And Hiro got one of his powers back, which is good and proper. No powers is dull. Too much power is dull. A little power is just right.
  • The biggest surprise of the episode, though, was that Peter got to be heroic. In a show called Heroes, someone got to be the hero - without doing anything dumb or inexplicable. Somehow this felt like a watershed moment.

Remember when you used to like watching Heroes? We may have just travelled in time. Look out for exploding cities.

Heroes: Faster, Stronger, Fuller?

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

Even with a geeky show, it’s uber-geeky to pay attention to things like producer credits. Unless the guy in charge is named Joss Whedon or Russell T Davies, we simply should not know their names, any moreso than we should know the name of the factory foreman responsible for our cornflakes. Yet for those who do pay attention to such things, there was a frisson of anticipation leading up to last night’s episode of Heroes, because with last night’s episode, producer Bryan Fuller came back.

Bryan Fuller was one of the producers on Heroes for its first season, back when it was legitimately must-see TV. He was also the writer on the show’s best episode, Company Man. His other credits include cult favourites Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls, and Star Trek: Voyager. Well, everyone has to make their mistakes somewhere.

For the past couple of years he’s been off making quirky cutesy deathly rom-com Pushing Daisies, but that got cancelled, so they lit the batsignal and called him back to Heroes to try to steer the ship away from the rocks of mediocrity. Last night’s episode was also the last one to feature the thumbprints of the man who may bear the blame for much of that mediocrity, Jeph Loeb, a comic book writer who attempts to cover up his startling lack of originality by hiding it behind his towering lack of ability.

sylar-spoilers

Going in to last night’s episode we had Sylar on yet another tireseome extended road trip, having finally ditched but sadly not killed his irritating teen sidekick. (If ever there was a superhero convention this show did not need to explore, it was teen sidekicks, and if it really had to go there, it really shouldn’t have gone there with Sylar.)

We also had yet another blow-up-a-city prediction, this time involving Matt Parkman suicide-bombing DC, and we had the ongoing power-struggle between Danko the sickly-looking sub-Berkoff, and Nathan Petrelli, America’s most negligent senator. Plus, we had Claire participating in a Mutant Railroad that seemed suddenly to require her to help a predatory psychopath - and not the hot one with the eyebrows, but the fat one with the sweating - and we had Hiro and Ando ‘travelling’, ie, not doing anything, because after their pathetic ’save the lesbian, stop the wedding’ sub-plot, they needed a time-out.

Last night’s episode was clearly a bit of a deck-clearing exercise for Fuller so that he could start putting things right. Coming out of the episode, Sylar’s road trip seems to have reached its end; the blow-up-the-city plot was speedily curtailed; the Danko/Petrelli tussle was resolved by putting Noah in charge; Claire was no longer running the railroad; and Hiro and Ando were back doing potentially plot-relevant stuff (or setting up a superhero babysitting sitcom spin-off).

The episode ended with a trailer that pretty much just flat out said, “we’re sorry the show has been crap, but we promise the new episode in two weeks’ time will be better”. Cause for celebration? We’ll see. This marks the third time that Heroes has apologised for itself and promised to do better, so even if the show can still improve, the audience may have run out of patience.

But was last night’s episode any good? Not really, no. It was better than discovering that Noah Bennett has flashbacks in the style of Nouvelle Vague cinema, or that Sylar’s flashback theme is The Chain by Fleetwood Mac (though I was hoping we’d discover that Danko has flashbacks to Make It With You by Bread), nor did we get anything on the level of last week’s wonderful dialogue exchange - “I’ve been here before.” / “How do you know?” / “I remember.” -  but it was still not what I would call ‘good’. 

danko-panko

First we had to get past the millstone of the obligatory exploding city prediction story, in which Danko thought he could convince the world of the danger posed by super-people by using a completely non-super threat. So clever. This narrative cul-de-sac was hastily backed away from by having Nathan yank out a wire. 

Then we had Claire’s fleeting decision to go and work in a comic shop for five minutes, which turned out to have absolutely no relevance to anything and served only as an excuse to mock the dumb dedicated fanboys and fangirls who are still watching this show. I’m going to assume that this sequence was Jeph Loeb’s bitter last hurrah. Claire next went on to save a rapist and set him free in the park. Don’t look back, Claire! Let him go! He needs to be free!

The episode gave us was more progress on the Danko/Nathan/HRG power-struggle than we’ve seen all season, the highlight of which was watching Angela Petrelli eat oysters. I think the Danko/Angela scene was meant to be a tense stand-off between two heavyweight players, but no glower or sneer that Danko could muster came close to the menace of Angela Petrelli chugging oysters in the manner of an erotic Hannibal Lecter. Danko was sent packing like a disobedient schoolboy.

The centrepiece of the episode was Sylar’s confrontation with Sylar Senior, played by John Glover. Glover is best known to many as Smallville’s Lionel Luthor, so in a unified universe, Sylar and Lex Luthor are now brothers, which means the first crossover incest slash-fic is only minutes away. 

Unfortunately, after weeks of build-up, the clash between Sylars Père et Fils was a damp squib. The highlight was Daddy triumphantly pissing in Sylar’s chips by telling him he welcomes death, but no-one gets to outclass Sylar and his thick, lustrous eyebrows - not in Sylar’s show! - so the pouty little vulcan princess overcame pappy’s one-man-and-his-dog whistling powers and took his leave. And that was it.  Well, that, and they killed and stuffed a rabbit together. I’m hopeful that we haven’t seen the last of Lionel Sylar, as he’s far too good an actor to waste on that pitiful scene.

It was a clumsy, hapless episode, but maybe, just maybe, it did enough to set things moving in the right direction for the last handful of episodes of this season and on into season four. And, like a fool, I’ll be tuning in to find out. Disappoint me again, Heroes. I like it when you demean my intelligence.

Dance For Me! Dance! Dance!

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

I talk a lot on this blog about American Idol, but there’s actually another reality talent show that I’m much more impressed by, and that’s America’s Best Dance Crew.

Actually, the proper title is Randy Jackson Presents America’s Best Dance Crew, but what Randy Jackson contributes isn’t very clear. He’s not the presenter (that honour goes to AC Slater from Saved By The Bell) and he’s not a judge (that’s choreographer Shane Sparks, someone who calls herself ‘Lil Mama’, and ‘N Sync’s JC Chasez. Yeah, I know, but I’ll take All Day Long I Dream About Sex over anything by Timberlake. It has handclaps!). I don’t think Randy Jackson even produces or came up with the concept. He just stuck his name on the thing.

I only very recently caught on to ABDC with a marathon of the first season one snowy day over the Christmas holidays. It’s now at the end of its third series, and this week’s final is between Beat Freaks and Quest Crew, both of whom are amazing.

And that is why I love this show; the talent is unquestionable, and the performances show real passion and dedication. These guys aren’t doing this because they want to be on TV; they’re doing this because this is what they want to do. I wish I’d had that drive when I was a kid. Hell, I wish I had it now.

For your enjoyment, here are two of the best routines of the season, by the two finalist crews. The first is by Beat Freaks, the first all-girl group to make the final. This was from the week when all the groups had to incporporate magic into their routines.

The other finalists are Quest Crew, and this is their semi-final performance for the ‘Hip-Hop Decathlon’ routine (which had five required elements; apparently hip-hoppers aren’t familiar with the term ‘pentathlon’). The athleticism and precision on display is extraordinary, and the routine is ’sick’. (I’m told that’s a term of endorsement.)

For the record, I loved this routine even before the buff guy tore his shirt off.

Dollhouse: No Big Hunk Can Steal Her Away From Me

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

Two episodes in to Dollhouse, and our hero Echo is once again having sex with men for money. Since she can’t give consent, this makes her TV’s most rapeable action heroine. Fox, if you want to use that in your promos, be my guest. I think it gets across the message you want to sell.

realdollheads

I’m beginning to worry that this show is Joss Whedon’s mid-life crisis. While it does seem plausible that rentable reprogrammable people would be used for sex, let’s bear in mind that Whedon invented this flaky, dubious concept. These rich men hiring hot girls for sex are doing so because that’s what the writers want them to do, and we may be only a few weeks away from an episode in which someone hires two girl dolls to dress up as nurses and wrestle in Jell-O ‘because the plot demanded it’. It’s worth remembering that most mercenaries do not moonlight as hookers. 

I think the show might be a game of chicken that got out of hand. Apparently the concept arose because Eliza Dushku told Joss Whedon over lunch that she was looking for roles that would stretch her as an actor, which tend to be few and far between for women in the business. Whedon came up with the Dollhouse concept to serve that need, but he hasn’t made it work. I suspect he would have scrapped it if it weren’t for Dushku, and that Dushku wouldn’t have done it if Whedon hadn’t written it for her. Whedon can’t write this; Duskhu can’t act it; but they’re both obligated to ride it out because of the other.

Dushku’s acting improves a little this week when she’s playing the girl-in-peril, which is a role that’s well within her range. The problem is that she can’t do the innocent naif part that’s the lynchpin of the character (for want of a better word). When attempting ‘child-like’ she can only manage ‘what’s that smell?’

The plot this week - a Most Dangerous Game ‘tribute’ - was a step-up on last week’s kidnap nonsense, though it did take a quarter of the episode to get to it, and improving on last week is not a challenge. Whedon didn’t write or direct this week’s but there were some Whedonesque lines that may have been him - especially from Xandrew - and they still don’t click. This just isn’t a witty show, and Xandrew is too weaselly to be charming. This week’s choicest dialogue clunker came from Dushku, though, who gave us, “You know what gives someone the right to live? Not hunting them!” That is so true.

What did we learn this week?

  • When dolls die, they die in dainty hide-the-genitalia poses.
  • Harry Lennix’s greatest skill is the ability to pull guns out of his arse.
  • The audience is very stupid and does not know what ‘tabula rasa’ means. We must have it explained to us. Possibly every week.
  • We’re going to have to put up with that “Did I fall asleep” thing every week, and possibly also the elevator scenes where Echo says, “Wait there; I really want to go back to that guy and snuzzle”.
  • The trust-imprinting process requires the recital of dialogue lifted from As The World Turns or General Hospital. I feel they cut that sequence short, as we didn’t get as far as, “You complete me”.
  • The set of the Dollhouse is actually Wolfram and Hart, but they’ve added a zen reflection pool and some beanbags.
  • Plot alert! The naked guy at the end of last week’s episode was Alfa the broken doll, who is obsessed with Echo/Caroline. This is potentially the show’s most interesting thread. This is potentially the show’s only interesting thread.

And now, a little spoileration. If you don’t want to know the results, look away now.

During the production phase of the show there were several actors cast as ‘dolls’, including two dolls named Victor and November. In recent pre-publicity it was revealed that those characters had been dropped from the show, but the actors had been retained and new roles were being written for them. Because, yes, that’s what happens in the caring, nurturing world of television. They just can’t stand to see an actor go without work.

No, unless you’re Ali Larter, this is blatantly not the case. I think Victor and November are still in the show, and still dolls, and they’re the ones Mrs Dr Evil is using to keep an eye on Agent Hotness. We met one of them last week - the Russian mob lackey - and the other this week - the smitten next-door-neighbour. 

And in case you hadn’t already twigged - Alfa, Echo, November, Sierra and Victor are all names taken from the international radiotelephony spelling alphabet. This has me very excited for the possibility of guest appearance by 80s British TV cop Juliet Bravo. It also has me wondering if there are dolls called Golf, Hotel, Kilo, Xray and Uniform. I’m most looking forward to meeting Romeo and Yankee (I’m picturing Rodrigo Santoro and Chris Evans), and wondering if they can get away with Zulu.

Idol: The News Is Not Fabulous

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

I didn’t get around to posting my Idol thoughts after last week’s episodes because last week’s episodes were far, far too boring. There was an hour of people sitting in rooms weeping, and two hours of the judges sitting in big red thrones in a hideous Hollywood approximation of Versailles, and that was basically it. They barely even sent anyone home! They did get rid of the elevators, though, thank God. (Elevators are like lifts, except they never go anywhere nice.) 

The only notable moments were Simon throwing a hissy fit when a pretty but talentless blonde got the boot; Kara telling the blind guy, “we want to see you again” (high five!); and doolally devilchild Tatiana screaming, “I’m going to prove it to every guy who told me that I had to sleep with him to get my album out; this is for all of you”. I think not, dear. Also, Paula tried to do Simon’s “the news is not good… it’s great” swerve, but came out with “the news is not great”, realised her mistake, and had nowhere left to go but, “it’s fabulous”.

Today we get to the first of the live shows, and there’s been a change in format. For the last few years the show has had 24 finalists, whittled down across 14 weeks. This year the contestants are voted in to the final 12 from a pool of 36, divided into three groups. Three go through each week, and the final three are picked by the judges in the ‘wild card’ week. 

What does all this mean? Well, it means singers have very little chance to impress. At least a third of the finalists will only get to sing once before being sent home. There is no cushion for the merely so-so, because avoiding the bottom two is not enough. Only the top boy, the top girl, and whoever comes second or third will survive. Exposure in the audition shows will be a big advantage.

Hopefully that doesn’t apply so much to the contestants who got exposure because they were hideous wrecks. I refer, of course, to hellish Tatiana Del Toro and whiny drama queen Nate Marshall, whose only redeeming quality is the face of horror he pulled when he saw that Tatiana had been put through. The new format should prove an interesting test for Vote for the Worst, which has already given its endorsement to Tatiana for tonight’s show. The only reason anyone would ever vote for Tatiana is because of Vote for the Worst - even her own mother surely does not love her, which would explain a great deal about Tatiana - yet if ever there were a ‘worst’ to vote for, she’s it. 

The new format makes predictions tough - we don’t even know how the second and third groups of 12 will be broken down - but I’m going to take a stab at it anyway. Based on nothing more than my personal hunches (with consideration given to talent, memorability and screentime), here’s who I think will make the final 12, and the order in which they’ll be voted out:

Matt Giraud (first out)
Jackie Tohn
Norman Gentle
Mishavonna Henson
Michael Sarver
Taylor Vaifanua
Jasmine Murray
Scott McIntyre
Stevie Wright
Adam Lambert
Danny Gokey
Lil Rounds (winner)

If I’m even close to right, I’ll look like a genius. If I’m completely wrong, we’ll never speak of this again.

Footnotes:

Jackie Tohn is the ‘funny girl’ contestant, and while she’s an acceptable singer, she’s also extraordinarily annoying, and the sort of girl who hangs out with her brother’s friends and does not get on with other girls. Many voters are going to hate her.

Norman Gentle (aka Nick Mitchell, not to be confused with Nate Marshall), is the ‘funny guy’, who sings in comedy character mode. He’s a good singer, but not anywhere close to good enough, and he’s funnier than he ought to be, but also not funny enough. I’m putting him in to the top 12 as an outside bet, based on exposure alone - but I freely admit that it’s a slim chance. That he has got as far as the live shows at all is a surprise.

I’m hoping that Brent Keith will make the final 12, because he’s the best-looking guy left, but I don’t think it will happen, so that leaves oil rig lump Michael Sarver as the closest thing to man-candy with a plausible shot, and he’s really more ‘teddy bear adorable’ than ‘rock star hot’.

Scott McIntrye is the blind guy, and apparently that in itself is a sob story. He’s got a shaky voice, but I can see him doing well because, hey, he sure is a trooper!

Despite saying that theatrical contestants never do well, I’m putting Adam Lambert in my top three. Yes, even after he sang Cher in a shrill showtunes style last week. If he fixes his breathing and stops channelling Ethel Merman, he’ll be one of the better performers in the competition with a good chance of building momentum, and his theatricality will seem muted compared to the likes of Nate Marshall and Norman Gentle. He’ll be a wildcard pick, and go on to finish strong.

I’m already bored of smoky-voiced Downey Gokey - by the latest shows I actually thought his star was fading and his friend Jamar’s star was rising, but Jamar went home and Downey is still here. Like Eliot Yamin or Taylor Hicks, I predict he will develop an inexplicably strong fanbase that will carry him through to the final. Also, everyone loves Robert Downey Jr these days.

For a more scientific method; Based on the number of comments contestants are receiving under their photos on the American Idol website, the final 12 will actually be Adam, Alex, Anoop, Ariana, Danny, Jasmine, Kristen, Matt, Michael, Nate, Norman and Tatiana, but obviously there’s a lot of internet hating going on with some of those, and Adam only has so many comments because his photo is first. Worryingly, a lot of people actually seem to like Tatiana.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the person I think will win almost never does. Melinda Dolittle? Katherine McPhee? David Archuleta? No, no, no. That bodes ill for Lil Rounds. Usually the person I think will come fifth or sixth seems to win it, so put your bets on Jasmine Murray, kids!

Austen Powers

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single author in possession of a good following must be in want of a zeitgeist. Or something. Look, what I’m saying is, that bitch Jane Austen just will not die.

All of her completed works have been adapted at least twice - four of them in just  the last two years! She only wrote six of the damn things! Only Emma has enjoyed any period of dormancy of late, having not been touched since the mid ’90s, when it was adapted three times - as a movie, as a TV series, and as Clueless. Now even the unfinished novel Lady Susan is getting a BBC Four series.

And then there’s Pride & Prejudice. Adapted six times for television; three times for cinema; at least six times for stage, frequently as a musical. (I’m still haunted by the terrible lyrics to the title song of the dreadful Pardon My Prejudice, which my sister appeared in many years ago.  ”Pardon my prejudice, pardon my prejudice, if you can; I’ll pardon you, if you pardon me, you proud, proud man”.)

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All of that is without counting Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Jane Austen Book Club, Bride and Prejudice, or the recent TV series Lost in Austen. And now things are getting really strange. Having seemingly exhausted Austen proper (at least for now), and having apparently also exhausted the modernisation angle, those seeking to further plunder the Austen franchise for gold are now looking to cross-breed the Hampshire hussy’s work with other concepts. 

Lost in Austen was an attempt to put a girly twist on Life on Mars (Life on Venus, if you will), with a modern day gal finding herself magically transported into the book. Such is the appeal of the concept that it’s being remade as a movie by Sam Mendes.

Then there’s this thing:

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Two tired slices of zeitgeist wheezily leaning against each other for support as they stagger ever onwards. And now comes news that Elton John’s production company is making a movie called Pride and Predator - in which, yes, an alien crash lands in 19th century England and tears a bloody swathe through genteel country society. It is probably not a witty and well-observed study of social manners and mores.

Worryingly, even the new TV spot for this summer’s Wolverine movie shows Young Wolverine discovering his powers in a quaint period setting with puffy sleeves and waistcoats (taking a misguided cue from the dreadful Wolverine: Origins comic, which saw the rough and tough action hero starting out life as Little Lord Fauntleclaws). Admittedly it looks more Bronté than Austen, but the fact that I’m even using those words to describe a Wolverine trailer is a bad sign.

With any luck we’re now coming to the end of the Austen Translation period, and eventually the Godzilla of English literature will return to her dormant state. However, just in case there’s cash in the old girl yet, here are some ideas you might want to adopt and adapt for your own Bastard Austen project. 

Pirates & Prejudice: The Bennet household is all atwitter when Netherfield Park is boarded and raided by pirates and dashing Cap’n Jack Darcy comes raping and pillaging in Pemberley.

Sense & The City: The Dashwood girls come to modern New York and experience the pitfalls of internet dating, ‘bad boys’, and not knowing how soon is too soon to call. Alternative title: He’s Just Not That In Want Of A Wife.

Dark Persuasion: Anne Elliott’s former fiancé comes back into her life, only now he’s a sexy brooding vampire with pale skin and attractively messy hair. Yearning. achingly tender sexual awakening ensues.

Emma Mia: Just like regular Emma, but with the songs of Abba. 

Mansfield Planet: Fanny is a human raised in a family of aliens on a strange foreign planet. Can poor Fanny fit in and find love in a world where she knows she does not belong and everyone looks down on her as an inferior race? And is handsome and reprehensible Henry Crawford secretly a treacherous Cylon? (Yes.)

Harry Potter and the Abbey of Northanger: The money pretty much prints itself. As does the cease-and-desist order.

For the record, if you successfully adapt any of these ideas, I want half.

Dollhouse: Tear Your Playhouse Down

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

The first episode of Dollhouse, the new series from Buffy creator Joss Whedon, aired last night. Whedon is a messianic figure among nerds, and Dollhouse has been hotly anticipated by his acolytes - so much so, in fact, that campaigns to save the show from cancellation have been underway for months. 

Those fans may want to sharpen their pencils and dig out the addresses of the Fox executives. I suspect this show is not long for this world.

Dollhouse is a tough sell even before you’ve seen the first reel, as the concept is outright bizarre. Eliza Dushku stars as Echo, one of several personality-free operatives who can be imprinted with new identities and new skills and hired out to do, well, anything. If you have the money, you can hire a doll to do whatever job you want. So they could be mercenaries. But they could also be prostitutes. It’s the best little dollhouse, in Texas or anywhere.

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There are two problems here. First of all, it’s creepy. It sounds like a show about sex dolls who fight crime. That’s not nice. Whedon calls himself a feminist, but he’s really more a fetishist, with his particular thing being strong-but-vulnerable babes. He grew up reading Chris Claremont’s X-Men comics, and Claremont’s damsel/dominatrix complex has imprinted itself on Whedon. Like a lot of nerds, I don’t think he treats women as equals, but as something exotic and ‘other’, and a show about controllable superwomen seems like suspect territory for him to head into. (There are male ‘dolls’ as well, in theory; I don’t know how much time the show will spend with them.)

The second problem is that the concept is not very compelling. There are many places you can take a premise like this, but there’s no clear and obvious conflict. A vampire slayer fights vampires. A space cowboy goes up against outlaws and the law. A supernatural detective solves supernatural crimes. There’s no audience hook to ‘kick-ass sex doll’ except Whedon himself.

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There is conflict, of course. The Dollhouse is an illegal operation, and FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) is the Van Helsing looking to shut it down. There’s also an internal conflict for Echo, who used to be a troubled girl named Caroline, and is perhaps not entirely done with being Caroline.

This is all rather troubling as well, because most of the characters work for the Dollhouse, and the Dollhouse is essentially a slavery/prostitution racket - verging on child abuse given how innocent the dolls are in their dormant state. At one point Echo is even said to be getting her virginity back, which is just icky. If we’re meant to like the characters at the Dollhouse, the show has problems, and if we’re not meant to like the characters, the show has problems. If characters like Amy Acker’s Dr Saunders and Harry Lennix’s Boyd are meant to be sympathetic, it doesn’t work.

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And then there’s the Dushku problem. I like Eliza Dushku, but she is not a versatile actress. This show will require her to play all kinds of different roles and personalities, and in just the first episode she already runs into trouble trying to convince. As a girlfriend-for-hire in the opening scenes, she scrapes by (but the girl cannot dance). As a bespectacled and besuited hostage negotiator, she comes across like a soft core porn secretary waiting for the wah-wah to kick in. 

I’m already more interested in the other ‘doll’ featured in the pilot, new girl Sierra, played by Australian actress Dichen Lachman, and that’s less because of anything she does and more because she looks extraordinary, and therefore interesting. 

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Even in spite of all its flaws, Dollhouse might still have been watchable if it had borne the chief hallmark of Whedon’s writing - wit. Unfortunately, this is a very humourless show, and again that perhaps comes down to the dry, dark concept. There’s not much room for wit in a show like this. The character being dubbed ‘Xandrew’ gets the only jokes, and they’re not funny ones. This leaves Whedon writing dreadful lines like, ”You ever try to clean an actual slate? You always see what was on it before.” That’s neither good nor true! Add to this a run-of-the-mill child kidnap plot and there’s nothing here to get very excited about.

That said, I did like about the show was the sunken beds the dolls all slept in. I’d like a sunken bed; it looks like it could be cosy. They totally ripped those sleep-pods off from the Backstreet Boys video for Larger Than Life, though.

dhouse-pods

In the end, Dollhouse’s problems come back to the concept. It didn’t sound good on paper. It doesn’t feel good in execution. It’s too unpleasant, too convoluted, and it doesn’t make much sense. If you have enough money to hire a mercenary or a prostitute, why not just hire a mercenary or a prostitute? The character of Agent Ballard attempts to answer this question in the show, and the best he can come up with is, ”If you have everything, you want something else. Something more extreme. Something more specific. Something perfect”.

In other words, there is no answer. I was hoping to see how Whedon would make this concept work. He didn’t.

In A World Where Weevils Are Easily Recognised

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

Torchwood is back soon. Hurray! I can’t account for why I’m so fond of Torchwood when its awfulness is a truth I hold to be self-evident. I find it actually embarrasses me to think that this is one of the more widely watched examples of British TV out there in the world today. I’m also baffed to discover that a lot of the people who watch it overseas think it’s brilliant, sophisticated drama. Everything on US TV is better than Torchwood! A Shot At Love With Tila Tequila is better than Torchwood!

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Sorry Jack. Sorry Gwen. If it’s any consolation, I’d still rather watch Torchwood. In fact I wouldn’t want to miss an episode. Partly that’s because its awfulness is frequently compelling, partly that’s because watching it is like a creative puzzle where you try to work out how a writer, a director and team of actors might have handled the same premise, and partly that’s because I keep wanting it to get better, and I’d hate to not be there when it does.

For the new series, the show has been culled from 13 episodes down to just five, broadcasting a single story across five nights, because tearing off the sticking plaster is better than peeling it off slowly. The story is called Children of Earth (other names considered were ‘Common Songs of Garden Birds’ and ‘Plant Pots of the Outer Hebrides’, but those were deemed too exciting), and the trailer has now arrived on the intertubes. Let’s take a look, shall we?

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The hook is, ”As far as we can tell, at 8.40 this morning, every single child in the world… stopped”, and already I’m buckling in for a breakneck thrill-ride. Children standing still, you say? They haven’t quite grasped the spirit of Stephen Moffat’s trick for turning playground fears into compelling stories, have they? Children standing still is not scary; children standing still is a successful episode of Supernanny.

Still, Torchwood do investigate, because they’re interfering shits. Also, there’s some sort of worry that ‘they’ have come back. Who could ‘they’ be? What terrible and dastardly alien threat could possibly have such a hypnotic effect on an entire generation of children? I have a theory, and let’s just say the new ‘klaatu barada nikto’ may be ‘eh-oh, Tinky Winky’.

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Half way through the trailer things kick up a gear when a black-clad bitch assassin blows up Gwen Cooper - which is all I really ask for in a quality drama, to be honest - and we get exciting scenes of Ianto running, Jack wearing a coat, Gwen hilariously doing a John Woo leap out of the back of an ambulance with two guns, and a man in a suit saying ‘we’re in deep deep shit’. Adult. Edgy. Grr. Jack and Ianto enjoy a quick snog, which is immediately followed by the sound of a man screaming in horror. Not a slasher, I take it. Oh, and someone gets smacked in the face with a piece of plywood. You don’t see that sort of action in 24, you know.

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Yeaaaaaaargh!

Same Torchwood. Fewer episodes. Who says this show never gets any better?