Monday, October 15, 2007

TV: The problem with being right

Sometimes it sucks to be right.

I've often thought that for science fiction and fantasy to go mainstream, especially on television, would just result in a lot of bad science fiction and fantasy. The new fall television season, which is dotted with series that loosely fall into the genres, has proven me right, I'm afraid.

The bleak rundown for SF&F fans goes like this:

  • The Bionic Woman: This remake of a '70s-vintage spinoff is getting a lot of good buzz, largely because it's helmed by David Eick, 50% of the same team that turned another '70s cheesefest, Battlestar Galactica, into such a serious, classy drama that it once was possible to say the Emmys had unfairly snubbed it with a straight face. Unfortunately, The Bionic Woman substitutes flash for class and completely lacks the focus and sense of purpose that made Galactica so compelling.

    The Bionic Woman is a mish-mash of elements that don't fit well together, like a powerful operative working for a secret organization bent on saving the world who has to be home early every evening for her baby sister. The shadowy agency pulling heroine Jaime Summers' strings is so all over the map that it's impossible to tell whether they're good guys or bad, government minions or mad scientists--they seem to be all and none of the above. Is the show about Jaime's problems with her bionics (there are multiple hints that the implants may drive her mad), her issues with her intolerably bratty little sister, saving the world through bionics, the tragic back-story of the previous bionic woman or...what?

    Lead actress Michelle Ryan has all the necessary physical moves to pull off the obligatory weekly fight scenes, but her acting is marred by what looks like discomfort with her American accent (she's British). She frequently seems to pause while mouthing the unpersuasive dialogue, as if she's really having to think about the sounds coming out of her mouth. It's quite distracting, actually--I keep finding myself thinking "is there any reason Jaime absolutely had to be an American?"

    Bottom line, Jaime is a lot less fun to watch than her apparent nemesis, another bionic woman previously thought to be dead (and I'm rather enjoying watching Katee Sackhoff chew some carpet). But that's kind of a telling point, isn't it? If Jaime were all that interesting, they wouldn't need a second bionic woman, would they? Unless you really can't get through the week without a chickfight, there's not much here. Grade: C-

  • Chuck: A computer geek becomes a super spy when a huge repository of spy stuff gets downloaded into his head. The last time I had a problem with my computer, I had to take it to Geek Squad five times, and the tech who fixed it didn't realize he had--he was still telling me to send it back to the manufacturer. So I'm having trouble suspending disbelief for Chuck, which in any case makes the old Jake 2.0 look a lot better than it really was. At least that didn't require us to endure subplots about the woes of stereotypical low-wage workers in a big-box retail store. Seriously, anybody as smart as Chuck is supposed to be can figure out how to get a real job. Grade: D

  • Journeyman: I confess I haven't been able to sit through a complete episode of this series about a guy who somehow gets transported back in time to change something in history. The character is just not half as entertaining as Quantum Leap's Sam Beckett, and individual plot lines are tame by comparison. The series devotes an enormous amount of time to bickering between the time traveler and his wife, who seems to be seriously cheesed off that his contact in the past is an old girlfriend. Grade: F

  • Moonlight: First we had the vampire cop with a conscience (Forever Knight) and then the vampire detective with a soul (Angel). Now we have Mick St. John, another vampire detective who's motivated primarily by desire to watch over a young woman he saved as a child from another vampire. Pretty low stakes, and the writing suffers by comparison with its predecessors. The only good news is that Alex O'Loughlin is mighty easy on the eyes--but he's essentially wasted here. Call your agent, Alex. Grade: D

  • Pushing Daisies: The most intriguing concept of the season features a protagonist with the miraculous ability to bring the dead back to life for 10 seconds--and only 10 seconds. I really wanted to like it, but it's rendered in such an annoying style it's essentially unwatchable. The producers of this show really should be forced to rewatch The Princess Bride over and over until they understand how to mix fantasy and comedy--and how to use a narrative voiceover--without letting the style become the story. Grade: D-

  • Reaper: Sorry, but I need my weekly dose of House, so I haven't seen it. What was the CW thinking when it chose this timeslot? And it just sounds like Brimstone Lite. Grade: Incomplete

Notice the common thread? With the exception of Pushing Daisies, all these series are pale imitations of something else. That's what usually happens when you mix science fiction and/or fantasy with major broadcast networks. The way you get a series on a major broadcast network is by convincing a network exec that the series has a lot in common with something that already aired successfully on some other network. The few exceptions to that rule, like Heroes or Lost, strike me as accidents--I suspect the network exec who greenlighted them didn't get it. (And thank God for that.)

The best science fiction is all about originality. Even when science fiction borrows from itself, as in the case of Battlestar Galactica, it works best when it shifts the focus and takes off in a new direction. That just doesn't happen much with mainstream television, and personally, I think that if the big networks can't get it right, they should just not do it. They're wasting a lot of money and trying their viewers' patience.

Man, it just sucks to be right sometimes.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

TV: Bruckheimer Bites the Hand That Feeds Him With Justice

As I watched the debut of Jerry Bruckheimer's newest crime/legal drama, Justice, last night, I found myself wistfully thinking of the premiere episode of CSI. I was remembering that wonderful lighter moment when Gil Grissom looked into the morgue and shouted at the dead bodies, "You assholes!"

If only Jerry Bruckheimer remembered that.

Justice purports to portray the other side of the equation from Bruckheimer's other crime/legal dramas, which focus on the investigation and prosecution of crimes. The show revolves around a top-gun defense team and its efforts to get its clients acquitted, and then it throws in a hook by showing what really happened--the part "the jury never gets to see." The premiere episode revolves around the death of a woman married to an adoring cuckold who's a little too naïve to believed. She's rich and unfaithful, so naturally, her husband is the first and ultimately the only suspect. He proclaims his innocence, and because there's money in the family, he hires a high-test law firm to represent him. As the premise suggests, you really don't know what happened--and neither do any of the characters--until the revelation in the final minute or so of the ep.

Declaring my bias, I have to say that I'm about crime drama-ed out. I remain loyal to CSI, but its various spinoffs and ripoffs strike me as pale imitations these days. Then again, it's hard to call anything about Justice pale--it's too harshly in-your-face for that. Bruckheimer's shows have tended to become more and more grim--gone are the days when any regular character is going to put on a swami's hat or rush out the door for a cockroach race, and Justice is no exception to that trend.

The draw for me was Victor Garber, who I loved in Alias. I doubt I would've bothered if he hadn't been involved, as the fact that this show turned up on FOX, rather than CBS, made me think it probably had been rejected by brass at a network better known for, well, taste. The quality on FOX has been improving, with a lineup that includes truly great shows like 24 and House, but the network remains better known for cheap stunts like Skating With the Stars. One must wonder when a "name" like Bruckheimer shows up there.

I have mixed feelings about Justice. I had the same reaction I would have if I saw a car crash that looked truly awful but in which no one was seriously hurt: initial horror, and then relief that it wasn't worse. The series concept is intriguing, but the premiere episode is relentlessly cynical, playing to our suspicions that lawyers don't give a rat's ass about what's right. It hammers us with the message that lawyers only care about winning cases and making money. No, wait--there's one lawyer on the "TNT & G" team who claims to need to know his clients are innocent, Kerr Smith's character (Tom Nicholson), but Smith's boy-scout act isn't very convincing. In the few moments when you can believe his protestations at all, he comes off like a three-year-old in a shark pool. If you're looking for the good guys, change the channel.

There are bad guys, however, and they're the media, the police and prosecutors, who are portrayed here as grasping, corrupt and incompetent. The DA leaks lies and goes back on his word; the investigating police officer loses evidence and doesn't bother to check on his suspect's story because he's already decided he knows what happened before he bothers to for the truth. I'll buy that there are bad cops and district attorneys, but I certainly wasn't expecting this harsh an indictment from a series created by a guy who gives away Chevy Tahoes to law enforcement agencies.

It's no surprise that Garber's character, the camera-hungry spin-monger Ron Trott, is the most interesting of the bunch. His job is to combat trial by media by engaging in aggressive defense by media. You can think of Ron Trott as the anti-Jack Bauer: Jack does bad things for the right reasons, while Ron does the right things for the most venal of reasons. I'm curious whether the writers ever plan to show us what really drives him and/or how he got to be such a gold-plated jerk.

Strangely, however, the moral ambiguity that permeates this episode evaporated at the moment when the "truth" was revealed: the husband's innocent. He was upstairs kissing their daughter goodnight when his wife suffered a tragic accident. I can only speculate that somebody feared this whole story was just too O.J. to be likeable and decided the ep could only be saved by showing the defense team had gotten it right, however accidentally. I would've liked the ep better if the husband had been involved in her death in some way. It would've felt more consistent with the overall tone of the episode.

In the end, I liked it well enough to try it again...until Lost, which inhabits the same time slot, returns for season 3.

FOX premiered another crime drama last week, Vanished, about an FBI team investigating the abduction of a senator's wife. I'd recommend Vanished only to individuals with severe cases of chronic ADD--it's all flash and speed and no substance, with the thinnest of characterizations and plot twists that only work if you don't think about them for more than a split second. Besides, in the current hang-'em-all political climate, who really cares about a senator's wife?

I'll be very surprised if either series has long legs.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

TV, Films: Farewell to 2005

You can't really call yourself a critic if you don't end the year with some kind of "best-and-worst" list, so here's my list of the highlights and low points of 2005.

The good stuff

Battlestar Galactica: On television, it's no contest. This is hands-down the best show on television, fearlessly addressing contemporary controversies in a way that hasn't really been attempted since the glory days of the original Star Trek. Sci Fi Channel, about which no one with a brain can be anything but ambivalent, deserves a world of credit for this unexpected triumph.

Serenity: This tale of a band of misfits struggling to reveal the truth about a society in which the do-gooders have just gone way too damned far is the best science fiction film in years. Joss Whedon proves yet again that he's the absolute master at seasoning a wrenchingly tragic story with just enough humor to keep it bearable. Like the television series it's based on (Firefly), the film was criminally underrated by the few mainstream critics who bothered to notice it at all. It's already out on DVD--run, don't walk, to the video store, unless you're a big fan of big, God-fearing, altruistic government…no, wait, those are the people who need to see it most.

Lost: I have a bad feeling about the future of this series, but throughout 2005 it was consistently riveting. Re-energized by the addition of new characters from the doomed aircraft's tail section and sporting a whole new level of weird, courtesy of "the button" designed to prevent "another incident," it's as addictive as crack.

Batman Begins: The darkest Batman movie yet, and also the best (although I remain fond of the version that starred Michael Keaton). It was wonderful to see the franchise legitimized again this way.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: People who only saw the film probably liked it better than those of us who had read the book--they don't know the vastness of what was lost in translation. But the dragon sequence alone was worth the price of admission. While most of the media attention focused on how dark the film was, it's worth mentioning it also was laugh-out-loud funny a lot more than any of its predecessors. Still in theaters (and threatening to overtake Revenge of the Sith as the year's top-grossing film), and definitely worth the ticket.

CSI: The old fascination came back this fall, with the resumption of character development, especially for Nick Stokes after his near-death experience at the end of season 5, and the blessed restoration of the show's sense of humor.

Without a Trace: Is there anything that can keep Jack Malone nailed to his humanity, now that his father's passed away? It's hard to imagine what would, but I'll buy a ticket to find out, and so should you.


War of the Worlds: If Spielberg can't do science fiction any better than this, he should give it up and stick to history. It wasn't bad--but it wasn't very good, either, and I think we've rightly come to expect better from Spielberg.

The Stargates: I wanted so much to be a fan of the retooled Stargate: SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis. But it's not possible to be a fan of anything as uninspired as these series were this past year. I'm sorry to say it, but I'm starting to think this concept is just so tired it can't be refreshed.

Just plain ugly

Surface: Oy. Clueless rip-off with a mediocre cast and amateurish special effects. I know, I know--I keep harping on this series. But it really is just that bad.

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith: In fairness, one of the problems was that everyone knew how it would end, and that was nobody's fault. But that being the case, what was the point? Stilted dialogue, abysmal acting and not a plot twist in sight.

And how lucky do I feel that I didn't have any reason to go see Aeon Flux or Fantastic 4?

Now you ask, "But what about King Kong?" Haven't seen it. I keep thinking about seeing it, but it's King Kong--I've already seen it. I may yet, but it's three hours long, and I keep thinking about all the other stuff I have to do, and the idea of renting it from Netflix starts sounding good again...

What can I say--it's still just King Kong.

Friday, December 30, 2005

TV: Stuff That's Just not Ready for Prime-Time

I'm not a tech expert--I neither know nor care to know what nifty stuff lurks inside my television and makes the pretty pictures appear. I like the pictures, and I usually have no trouble restricting my thought processes to TV content. Once I figure out what cable plugs into what jack to get the whole thing to work, I'm done with the technology. But a couple of things have got me started thinking about technology as it relates to TV: The FCC recently mandated that television broadcasts in the U.S. have to be all-digital by 2009, and iTunes started selling TV shows for download.

First, the digital issue. We weren't planning on buying a huge, HD-ready television set in early 2005. Our old TV had different ideas--it was ready to retire and did so quite without ceremony (or warning). With the old one doing the electronic equivalent of heaving its last breath, we headed over to the local big-loud-box store and purchased the 50-inch techno-whiz behemoth we'd been putting off for several years.

So then we had this swell new toy, and I called up the local cable provider to inquire about HD service, which they were only too happy to come out and hook up, promising dazzling clarity and CD-quality sound. My first inkling that something might be just a bit, well, off came when I was told the new HD service wouldn't cost any more per month than our existing digital cable--suggesting that, in fact, it might not be worth more.

It's not.

In fact, if it cost more, I would've told the cable company to come haul its HD box outta here. As it is, it's not worth the cost of the service call to have it hauled out, although it would feel satisfying to do so.

I have three problems with the HD service I receive:
  • "Crystal clear?" What crystals have these guys been looking at lately? Annoyingly blurry with weird white snow at the top of the screen is the reality. And that's when it's not actually breaking up and getting all pixelized, which happens far too often to suit me.
  • "CD-quality sound?" Maybe if the CD's been left in the car and gotten warped by the heat. Actually, the worst part is that the sound frequently either drops out altogether or isn't synchronized with the picture, so that you get left with the feeling you're watching a foreign film with bad dubbing even though you're actually watching CSI.
  • Many of the plain digital, non-HD channels actually look a lot better than the high-falutin' HD channels. Seen BBC America lately? Why can I get BBC World Sport in better quality than the HD version of Lost? Some channels I watch all the time look significantly worse via the HD tuner box than they did through the old digital box. Sci Fi Channel, in particular, really appears to be transmitted via an antenna made of crumpled-up Reynolds Wrap.

I called the cable company to complain, and they were (gasp!) unhelpful. They blamed it on everybody else--the broadcasters, the satellites transmitting the signal from the broadcasters and even the producers for shooting shows in other formats.

I don't care whose fault it is. Like I said, I don't care what makes it work.

So when the FCC came out with its mandate, I laughed uproariously. I was picturing the commissioners looking at their brand-new, humongous flat-screens and cursing eloquently, just like I have been for the past nine months. Lots of luck enforcing it guys--my guess is, it won't do me a damned bit of good. If my experience so far holds true into the future, HD will really be ready for prime-time about five years after my new TV has collapsed and died. If then.

On the question of iTunes video downloads: Look, anybody who reaches for my iPod is going to draw back a bloody nub. I love the thing. But the video iPod didn't initially grab my imagination. My eyes (not to mention the rest of me) are too old to watch TV on a screen that small. But then it occurred to me that I could play the videos on my computer, as well as on an actual iPod. Or even, possibly, on my actual television.

Then I discovered that, unlike music downloads from iTunes, you are prohibited from copying the video files onto a disc for storage.

Can anyone explain to me why I would want to turn my $2,700 laptop into a glorified DVD player? Especially after just spending a bundle on a brand-new 50-inch TV?

No? I thought not.

I get the producers' wish to eliminate the risk of piracy of this material. I read somewhere recently that episodes of Battlestar Galactica are illegally downloaded more than 300,000 times a week. But if I wanted to get it illegally, why would I go to iTunes and pay $1.99? You think the pirates are depending on iTunes for their material? This prohibition won't stop illegal downloads, but it will discourage honest users like me from buying the files on iTunes.

I don't want to make dozens of copies and sell them on eBay. I just want to be able to use my hard drive for something other than video storage, and you can't tell me there's no way to rig up these files so that they can only burned onto a disc a single time.

This concept, like HD-TV, is just not ready for prime-time.

Update: I predicted that at least two of the new science-fiction series on mainstream broadcast channels in fall 2005 wouldn't make it past mid-season, and apparently I was too pessimistic (or too optimistic, if you factor in quality issues). CBS has killed Threshold, but NBC's appallingly bad Surface seems to have been given an undeserved reprieve. Maybe they're being gentle because its poor ratings aren't that much worse than most other shows on NBC. I notice they're occasionally rerunning it on Sci Fi--like SFC's core audience isn't made up largely of geeks like me who have seen the material Surface was stolen from a thousand times. Hey, if I want to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I'll turn on the VCR and watch the original.

The one remaining show worth watching in the group, Invasion, is scheduled to return sometime in 2006. I think Invasion is somewhat overrated, but now that Alias has gone to the dogs, I've got the time.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

TV: Not bad for a fall season

After a total computer meltdown and some health issues, I'm back with another batch of mini-reviews, this time for the television series I've been watching this fall.

Surface: Sea monsters bigger than aircraft carriers are swimming around in our oceans, and somehow nobody's noticed. This show has two concurrent plot lines, one of them a shameless, blatant rip-off of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the other a shameless, blatant rip-off of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. It's charitable to call its premise, that the presence of "sea monsters" somehow could trigger an enormous, planet-busting geological event, laughable. There's also a government conspiracy conducted by guys who look and sound menacing but aren't smart enough to be dangerous. On top of that, there's not a likeable character in the bunch. Someone scuttle this garbage scow. Please. Grade: F

Invasion: In the wake of a devastating hurricane, alien creatures are taking over people in a small Florida town. Interesting characters and premise, but the creepiness factor is low, and the plot lines of individual episodes and the overall story arc move with such glacial slowness that I'm starting to lose interest. Step up the pace a little, and it could be really great, but at this rate, we'll never know what happened to that little town during the hurricane. And the length of time it's taking for this town to recover from the hurricane makes FEMA's response to Katrina look efficient. Grade: C

Threshold: Aliens are "bio-forming" humans, turning us into them. Another batch of interesting characters, and the most interesting premise of the lot. But once again, the creepiness factor is low (unless you find gore creepy, and I don't). Most episodes have followed a disturbingly familiar track and focused far too much on technobabble--the show's working much too hard to be slick and cool. On the plus side, I've finally regained my respect for Brent Spiner as an actor. Grade: B

Ghost Whisperer: Should've been titled Touched by a Psychic. I can't take this much syrup on waffles, much less TV. Grade: D

Bones: A forensic archeologist and an FBI agent solve crimes by studying, well, bones. David Boreanaz is playing the role of Special Agent Seeley Booth like "the lighter side of Angel," but somehow, it works pretty well. The stories have been engaging so far, but two things bug me: First, the series is working really hard at developing romantic tension between the two leads, and there's just not that kind of chemistry there, and second, Emily Deschanel's character is too abrasive to be believable, much less likeable. Nobody this socially inept can make it in a large institution like the "Jeffersonian Institute," where playing a political game is likely to be a survivial strategy. Grade: B

And about some returning shows...

Alias: Why am I still watching this? Of course, the mystery of why I ever watched it always has been a large part of its appeal--it's easily the most totally implausible series on television. But the novelty's fading, in part because I had a lot invested in the previous set of characters, and I'm not sure intriguing implausibility is enough to make me spend the time to learn to love a new set. If they had killed off Marshall, instead of Vaughn, I'd have more time on my hands on Thursday nights. Grade: Incomplete

Stargate: SG-1: I love Ben Browder, and I really wanted to love this retooled version of the show. But the episodes in the first half of the season have been so cheesy and goofy that I just can't manage anything but a great big yawn. King Arthur? Come on. Stop fooling around, and convince me the Ori are villains worthy of SG-1's steel. Grade: D+

Stargate: Atlantis: I never thought the Wraith were scary villains, and they're even less so now that the folks on Atlantis managed to thwart their invasion with relative ease. It's never a good idea to make the villains look too incompetent--it takes all the fizz out of the conflict. The Atlantis team certainly can handle better, and they deserve it. Grade: C

Lost: Flirting with getting too weird to be fun anymore, but not quite over that edge yet. Saving the world by typing a code into an old Apple computer every 108 minutes? Hmm... But the notion that the island is a kind of purgatory in which the characters all have to resolve their personal issues and find redemption is becoming more and more appealing, and the producers are doling out just enough little bits and pieces of information at just about the right pace to keep it interesting. Still one of the most intriguing shows on the air in a long time, and even the irritating characters are fascinating studies. Let there be weird. Grade: A-

Battlestar Galactica: Season 2 is evidencing a disturbing tendency to develop interesting plot threads...and then inexplicably drop them unresolved. On the up-side, they certainly left us with one hell of a cliffhanger, and the stories and the dynamics between the characters remain riveting. Episodes in the first half of the season have raised fascinating questions about the nature of humanity--and I'm all for anything that on TV that makes people think a little. The guessing game--who's a Cylon and who's not--is still loads of fun. By my count, we've now seen six of the 12 models (Number 6/Shelley Godfrey, Sharon Valerii, Leoben Conroy, Aaron Doral, Simon, and D'Anna Biers). Personally, I hope they don't reveal the other six too soon--keep us guessing, please. Grade: A-

Not bad for a TV season--there's only one real barking dog in the bunch, and it's been a while since I could say that.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

TV: Where'd All This Science Fiction Come From? (And How Long Will it Last?)

Three new science-fiction television series have been proposed for the fall 2005 season on the "big-three" networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC). In the past, I would've regarded this as cause for optimism, a sign that science fiction at last might be becoming more mainstream and less a genre that critics and reviewers only mention so they'll have something to ridicule on a regular basis. These days, I've learned to be more cynical, so much so that I'll predict here and now that at least two of these series won't survive to mid-season. If any of them makes it into a second season, I'll be stunned.

Frankly, when it comes to science fiction, the big-three networks' records are just plain piss-poor, dating back to the infamous cancellation of Star Trek after three seasons back in the '60s (about which some lifelong fans remain justifiably bitter). And that was a longer run than most SF series have had on the mainstream networks. For the most part, genre shows on ABC, CBS and NBC have been yanked off the air after only a few episodes. Remember Wolf Lake? I thought not--it went a handful of episodes a few years ago before it was unceremoniously dumped just as it was starting to get interesting.

The newer broadcast networks, FOX, UPN and the WB, have sometimes done a little better by their genre shows, mainly because they're still small enough to content themselves with a niche audience. These networks often have been willing to be patient and let a good SF show find its audience. In fact, they were so willing to be patient that the most successful of such shows--The X Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek: Voyager, Smallville--actually managed to stay on the air until after they had ceased to be interesting. Long after, in some cases.

FOX, however, apparently has become successful enough to adopt the big three philosophy of canning SF at the first sign that it might need some time, and sometimes the network has been simply brutal. Chris Carter's Harsh Realm got the harsh treatment after only a few episodes; FOX execs did everything in their power to destroy Joss Whedon's wonderful Firefly even before it ever saw air by insisting on broadcasting it out of sequence. The network had the audacity to renew Tru Calling, cancel it over the summer, and then promote the broadcast of a handful of unaired episodes as if it were a new season and drop the ax again in the middle of a cliffhanger. FOX isn't proposing any new science fiction this season, and if it were, I would be hesitant to watch it for fear I'd have to witness its horrible, early death.

UPN hasn't done much better, but the truth is, most of the science fiction UPN has aired didn't really deserve to live. The network doesn't appear to have either the will or the finances to do it right, even with its cash-cow Star Trek franchise. (I wanted to like Enterprise, really I did. But it was impossible to like.) And these days, with the network aiming at a young, female audience, and apparently convinced that there's no such thing as a female science-fiction fan, it's not very likely they'll try again soon. (There's nothing wrong with Veronica Mars, but it's hardly a substitute for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Yeah, I know, some people are calling it "the new Buffy," but I think that's just because there's nothing else out there for a young, female demographic that even approaches Buffy's quality.) In some ways, it's just as well UPN doesn't try again, when you think back on earlier forays like Special Unit 2 or, God help us, Mercy Point.

The WB, frankly, hasn't done much that really can be called science fiction at all. Truth is, Buffy, Angel and Smallville lean more toward horror and/or fantasy than science fiction. The three genres tend to get lumped together because they often share the same audience, or at least parts of it. The WB has treated its shows better, with the exception of the ill-fatedBirds of Prey--I guess the network was hoping the lightning that sparked Smallville to success would strike twice--but that may be in part because they've risked so much less in the first place.

When you get right down to it, even the Sci Fi Channel has done a lot more horror and fantasy than science fiction in its original programming. (Some notable exceptions: Farscape, Battlestar Galactica, First Wave, and Stargate: Atlantis. I'm not counting Stargate: SG-1 because it had already become established on Showtime before moving to Sci Fi.) And if SF shows can't get respect from the Sci Fi Channel, what hope do they have elsewhere?

So, am I going to watch Threshold on CBS, Invasion on ABC and/or Surface on NBC? Probably. But my expectations, especially with respect to their longevity, are quite low. For one thing, they all seem to be treading such similar ground, concept-wise, that they're going to be competing head to head with each other as much as with other shows in the same timeslots. I like a good alien-invasion plot as much as the next SF fan, but how much of it do you really want all in the same week?

I don't know or care anything about what went on behind the scenes, but these shows strike me as being rushed into production on the off-chance that they can capitalize on the momentum created by successes like Lost, Battlestar Galactica, The Dead Zone and The 4400. What the network execs have failed to remember is that these successful series created their own momentum, rather than trying to siphon it off something else. Surface strikes me as particularly unlikely to make it long-term, if for no other reason than that its title has been changed at least once already--not a sign of stability at the top. (It's being produced by the people who brought us G. vs. E., not exactly the epitome of success.) All that underwater filming can't be cheap, which makes it a cost target.

What's that you say? I haven't even mentioned the retooling of The Night Stalker? Well, one of the good things about not reviewing things for money anymore is that I never have to watch anything I don't want to watch. I didn't like the first one, and I couldn't care less about the second incarnation, especially since it's being produced by Frank Spotnitz, who I blame for the painful and embarrassing descent into incoherence of The X Files in its final seasons. How Spotnitz got another job in television is much more a mystery than anything likely to air on The Night Stalker.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Film: The Great Raid is a great relief

This summer movie season reminds me of the parts of A Clockwork Orange in which young Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is bound to a chair with his eyes forced open as visuals of mindless, pointless violence flash endlessly on a screen.

Thus, The Great Raid, although certainly no less violent than many other films released this summer, really felt like a breath of fresh air. At least the violence in this movie has meaning.

That said, The Great Raid is a good movie, not a superb one. It hasn't got the emotional power of Saving Private Ryan--everyone in this film is stoic almost to a fault--or the spine-wrenching intensity of Enemy at the Gates. But considering the historical context, the filmmakers probably were right to keep things a bit on the restrained side.

The film deals with the heroic end to one of the more shameful episodes involving U.S. policy during World War II--the abandonment of hundreds of American forces to brutal Japanese imprisonment in the Philippines. I've long suspected FDR's "Germany first" policy would've been a lot harder sell if folks at home had had a clearer picture of what was going on in those Filipino prison camps or on the Bataan Death March that sent the POWs to the camps. The abandonment of the Philippines early in the war, while it probably was the only practical thing to do under the circumstances, is something no American should be able to think about without a twinge of conscience. I'm no big fan of Douglas MacArthur, but he was right about that one.

The Great Raid doesn't gloss over that negative aspect, but it's clear from the outset that its purpose lies in telling the story of the rescue mission, not the reasons why a rescue became necessary. One can argue that the rescue was too little and too late, a point the film itself makes in its focus on a POW leader who eventually doesn't survive despite the lengths others go to on his behalf. In truth, the raid on Cabanatuan was largely symbolic, but if symbols weren't powerful, military uniforms would be a lot plainer and nobody would hang up the flag on the Fourth of July.

The film has its thrilling, suspenseful and poignant moments, but the suspense is somewhat muted by the fact that you already know how the story ends. The acting is competent but not all that compelling (headliner Benjamin Bratt has an uncanny resemblance to the actual commander on the raid, Lt. Col. Mucci), with the exception of Joseph Fiennes' fine turn as Maj. Daniel Gibson, the ill-fated leader of the POWs. But, like I said, it's all very stoic, giving nobody in the cast much opportunity to emote. The film sticks to the facts of the mission, in the process de-emphasizing the personalities, which leaves it all feeling just a bit sterile.

If you want to see this film in a theater--and that's where the impact of it will be greatest--you probably need to hurry. It was very sparsely attended in our neighborhood Cinemark, while the Alex types flocked to another dose of aversion therapy down the hall.

On another, somewhat lighter note, I've really been waffling about whether to see The Brothers Grimm when it opens next week. I keep thinking things like "Terry Gilliam, Matt Damon, Heath Ledger--how bad could it be?" And then I see another of those godawful previews and remember that August often is the month when studios throw out their trash, and realize it could be very, very bad indeed. I'm leaning toward waiting for the DVD.