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.