Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

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Location: New England, United States

Monday, August 20, 2007

What I'm Watching

Well, it's been a while since I've posted some of my useless ramblings, so I thought I'd do a little something here. Originally I intended this blog to be a place where I could comment on and review a variety of media. The function of review has pretty much been taken over by my dedicated movie review site, The Pit. But I'm in a judgemental mood of late, so I thought I might as well post a few other reviews. Here, I will address the small screen, and share with you some of the television shows I'm watching right now. As always, I share my opinions with you, and encourage you to offer your own. I have made my judgements, and will allow you to make yours.

Eureka - Sci-Fi Channel, Tuesdays, 9pm EST

"Eureka" started its second season a few weeks ago, and it started out quite promising. This show about a town in the Pacific Northwest where the most brilliant scientific minds have settled to work and study was very charming in its first season, and in the sophomore season it experiences its growing pains. Although predominately a light-hearted show, it's capable of some really dark moments, and the show's writers manage to strike a decent balance between the two.

The premise behind the show is the cross-pollination of two thematic motifs: the isolated small town full of eccentrics crossed with the clandestine scientific community, "Eureka" is basically X-Files meets Northern Exposure. Predominately told from the point of view of Jack Carter (Colin Ferguson), US Marshall turned small-town Sheriff and bumbling Everyman in this town full of geniuses, "Eureka" explores the interactions between highly-intelligent people who and the disasters they unwittingly unleash in the course of testing their discoveries. Nearly every other week the town is in mortal peril because something someone built didn't work right, or else worked TOO well. The potential to get formulaic is there, but the show manages to be charming enough to not wear out its welcome. Plus which, there is a season-long story arc running through all the episodes, as Henry Deacon (Joe Morton) seeks to unreavel the mysteries behind the death of his scientist girlfriend at the end of the first season. This arc gives some character growth to Henry, which is frankly necessary. For most of the first season, Henry Deacon was the genial semi-retired mechanic, who offered assistance and moral support to Carter whenever he needed it. This season he gains an edge, as he plunges forward in an investigation into the real cause of the accident that cost the life of the woman he loved, and just what kind of shady dealings are going on within Global Dynamics. We see the dark side of Henry this season, as he misleads and manipulates those who trust him while he pursues the truth. It's certainly enough to keep one watching, if only to see where this road will take a once-beloved character.

I would like to see more of this sort of thing for this show. Character development. As the average man trying to bring law and order to a group of people much smarter than he is, Jack Carter is a fairly one-note character, and Colin Ferguson's well-meaning but slightly-thick act is wearing thin. In contrast, Jack's troubled daughter Zoe (Jordan Hinson) is the other end of the character development spectrum, making a transition from bratty rebellious teen to well-adjusted engineering genius in a matter of three or four episodes. Nice, but not very beleivable. Other one-note characters include hapless lab assistant Fargo (Neil Grayston), who's been responsible for so many world-threatening accidents that you'd think he'd have learned something by now; and animal control expert Taggert (Matt Frewer), a half-crazed Fake Australian in the vein of the late Steven Irwin, minus the regard for his own personal safety. Now I like Matt Frewer as much as the next guy, but his character is grating, and so is his accent. It's just so obviously fake that it takes me out of the show every time I hear it. Why did they make him do an Australian accent anyway? I mean, if Sci-Fi Channel wanted an Ausssie, I'm sure they could find a real one easily enough! it's not like Cameron Daddo's busy making Pterodactyls 2 or anything...

The show remains consistently entertaining, but there is definite room for improvement. I hope that it does so.

Man Vs Wild - Discovery Channel, Fridays, 9pm EST

Once again the Discovery Channel appeals to the armchair warrior in all of us, by dumping a crazy British Special Forces soldier in the middle of some godforesaken wilderness, then filming him trying to escape. This show gets unfavorable comparisons to the similiarly-themed "Survivorman," which features a crazy Canadian survivalist getting dumped in the middle of some godforesaken wilderness, who then films himself trying to escape, and criticism that some of the situations Bear Grylls gets himself into are staged, as opposed to Les Stroud's complete willingness to actually put himself in mortal danger for our entertainment. But I just like Bear Grylls better. He's got such enthusiasm for what he's doing, as opposed to Les Stroud's bleak seriousness. Any time I see Bear eating maggots and drinking his own pee, it fills me with delight. And the fact that Bear is clearly being followed around by a camera crew with explicit orders NOT to help him makes it even more fun. I can just imagine the cameraman taunting Bear with a granola bar. "Those maggots look real tasty there, Bear..."

Which isn't to say "Survivorman" doesn't have its appeal. It's just that Les Stroud is less charismatic, or rather is so focused on the task of actually surviving that he doesn't have the time or inclination to really do the TV host thing. Just him, his camera, and his multitool trying to last seven days in some remote location. It's many an episode where you can actually see the despair set in on Les's face; he really could die out there, and he seems to realize that. And sure, that's real and stuff, but it's not much fun to watch. At least, I don't find it fun...maybe someone does.

Maybe I just find these shows entertaining on a different level than the average viewer. I'm not an outdoorsman. I'm certainly not a survivalist. So I think it to be HIGHLY unlikely that I will ever find myself marooned in the French Alps or in the Australian Outback, where the important lessons Bear and Les have to share about living off the land will mean the difference between life or death. I mean, it's nice to know that corn chips can be used as candles and that scorpions actually taste pretty good, but I don't delude myself into thinking I will EVER be in a situation where that knowledge could save my life. The Discovery Channel seems to pander by and large to the kind of man who considers himself macho and manly and tough, and so shows programs feature macho occupations like lobster fishing and building big industrial things and motorcycle repair...and of course, marooning yourself in a remote location for fun. Of course the truly macho manly man isn't going to sit down and watch a show like this; he's got stuff to do, man. I don't. So I watch the show, and I don't for a minute think that I could possibly do any of that stuff. But it's fun to watch.

Doctor Who - Sci-Fi Channel, Fridays, 8pm EST

Ah, "Doctor Who." The old reliable standby of TV science fiction. 30 years on British TV and climbing. And now, shown on American TV once again. I try to be a fan. I really do. But, like many Americans, for me the Doctor will always be Tom Baker, and the show will always be that goofy low-budget show. This new, slick, hip and edgy "Doctor Who" just doesn't appeal to me the same way.

The biggest change, of course, is in the characterization of the Doctor. In the past the Doctor was almost always an older, wiser, level-headed figure, who would rather outwit an enemy than outfight him. This new Doctor is darker. According to this new series, the Time Lords and the Daleks finally had it out in a massive war spanning all time and space, which ended in mutual annihiliation. Only the Doctor and his trusty TARDIS survived the destruction, although of course the odd Dalek pops up now and then in the show. A reluctant participant in such a destructive conflict, and consequently the only survivor, the Doctor is now brooding and stern, although still given to bouts of loveable eccentricity at times. When the Doctor was played by Christopher Eccleston, that stern brooding nature almost worked, as Eccleston is a fairly buff and intimidating guy. But once he morphed into David Tennant, it kind of lost something. Skinny little goofy guy trying to be tough...doesn't work.

The Doctor's new set of Companions are a mixed bag. Billie Piper as Rose Tyler for the first two seasons was okay, but her sassy working-class girl attitude got on my nerves after a while. And I was distracted by her overbite. Gah, British dentistry! How in God's name was this woman a pop star with choppers like that? Man. Although I did get some perverse pleasure out of the fact that they hinted at a genuine romantic relationship between the Doctor and Rose, which has been a No-No in the Doctor Who universe since the beginning. The English fans were up in arms when we Americans made a Doctor Who movies back in the 90's and had the Doctor be romantically involved with his Companion, and then when the Brits decide to do it themselves...they do the exact same thing. Ha!

I haven't seen enough of Martha Jones in action to form an opinion yet, but so far she hasn't seen all that distinct from Rose. She's a bit more mature than Rose was, a bit more likeable, but I need to see more of her to get the gist of what they plan to do with her. And then there's Captain Jack. How I love this guy. "Torchwood" hasn't made it to this side of the Pond yet, which is unfortunate, because I want to see more of Jack Harkness in action. He's the first openly bisexual Companion the Doctor has had, and he's refreshingly unstereotypical. I like the treatment of his sexual orientation in the universe of the show: he's front a point in the future where humanity has made contact with so many different alien species that traditional human gender notions are no longer relevant. It makes perfect sense, really. If human beings ever do get their acts together and venture to the stars, of course we're going to run into very different creatures than our own. And of course we're going to have to rethink our perceptions of sexual roles. I mean, what's your sexual orientation if you fall in love with a sentient green blob from Rylos 7? And of course, I like the unspoken implication that Captain Jack is a shameless libertine even by HIS culture's standards.

While there are things to love, all in all, "Doctor Who" is disappointing on a dramatic level. Time was, the Doctor would solve a problem using his intellect and his trusty sonic screwdriver (which, in Tom Baker's own words, "could open any door in the universe...unless of course, it couldn't, depending on the script that week."). This Doctor relies on convenient Deus Ex Machinae and touchy-feely sentiments. It's kind of sad, and smacks of lack of creativity. And would it be too much to ask to have them make the Daleks look a little more menacing? I'm sorry, but they have PLUNGERS FOR HANDS. They never were scary, and they continue to not be scary. It's hard to take seriously an enemy you can foil by just pushing it over and running upstairs.

Oh well, I'm looking forward to the rest of the third season, anyway. I hear the Master is back! Woo-hoo!

Flash Gordon - Sci-Fi Channel, Fridays, 9pm EST

"Re-imagining" of classic works can be a tricky business. It can work very well or it can backfire spectacularly. Sci-Fi Channel's modernized take on Flash Gordon is only two episodes in, so it's too early to tell. But it certainly is interesting viewing. It is very un-Flash Gordon-like to watch. No rocket ships. No Hawkmen or Lion-men (at least, not YET). There's none of the colorful insanity of the film. This is a bit more realistic. Whether that's a good or bad thing remains to be seen.

In this series, Stephen "Flash" Gordon (Eric Johnson) is a minor celebrity in his small town, having won the local marathon three years running. But apart from that, he's a bit of a loser: in his late twenties, he still lives with his mother, whom he took care of after his father's disappearance and presumed death some time earlier. Dale Arden (Gina Holden) is a reporter for the local newspaper, and Flash's former high school sweetheart. Flash is still carrying a torch for Dale, but Dale is engaged, having moved on with her life.

Also crossing paths with Flash on this fateful day is Hans Zarkov (Jody Racicot). In this re-imagining, Zarkov is a crazed scientist living in a motor home as he tracks spatial anomalies across the country. Meeting with Flash, he accidentally lets slip the knowledge that Flash's father might still be alive somewhere. Sure enough, one of the anomalies Zarkov is tracking turns out to be a wormhole, which transports Flash and Dale to the planet Mongo.

In this reimagining, Mongo is less exotic. The setting has yet to be explored in detail, but here Mongo is recovering from some as-yet unspecified ecological disaster, which has rendered most water unfit to drink, and has catapulted the dictator Ming (John Ralston) to power, as he controls the only reliable source of safe water. Yes, in this series, Ming is clearly Caucasian, and he dresses pragmatically as a quasi-fascist ruler. The oriental extravagance of Ming the Merciless from the comic and the movie is nowhere to be found. But this Ming is no less powerful, maintaining his iron grip on Mongo through harsh taxation, draconian law, and Machiavellian philosophy. It's an...interesting take.

The show is only two episodes old, so it's hard to pass a conclusive judgement. At the most, it's an interesting interpretation. Oddly devoid of the kind of over-the-top swashbuckling adventure you associate with the name "Flash Gordon," but it has the potential to be compelling. The re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica was quite successful, and there's every possibility this one will be too.

Burn Notice - USA Network, Thursdays, 10pm EST

Ah, I save the best for last. "Burn Notice" is without doubt my favorite new show. It conveys a sense of fun and atmosphere that's frankly missing in most TV shows these days. Certainly it's the best thing to come out of the USA Network since the original Cartoon Express.

A "burn notice" is a real thing in the world of intelligence. When a spy or contact becomes unreliable, they get "burned." Basically they are blacklisted, cut off from contacts and legitimate means of employment. This is what happens to CIA operative Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) while on assignment in Nigeria. The deal he is negotiating falls apart, and he barely escapes with his life. After passing out on an international flight, he wakes up in his hometown of Miami, being tended to by his ex-girfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar). Although cut off from reliable contacts and resources, Michael is determined not to take his unwarranted burn notice lying down. With the help of Fiona and his old friend Sam (Bruce Campbell!), Michael sets himself up as a sort of freelance private investigator, helping people who can't go to the police for whatever reason. He solves problems and makes money to fund his investigation into his burn notice, and every so often he tries to repair his relationship with his hypochondriac mother Madeline (Sharon Gless).

I absolutely love this show. Set against the backdrop of Miami, where bright colors and beautiful people constantly move in the background, the show has a real sense of style and flow. Michael, Fiona, and Sam are all professionals, albeit coming from different sides of the playing field in the world of international espionage, and when they get together to make a plan work, their ability to improvise complex manuevers reminds one of "Mission Impossible." You really get the sense that these are pros doing what they know how to do, and when a plan comes together it's just awesome beyond words. The flow is further helped along by Michael's occasional narration, wherein he shares with the viewers the odd rule of thumb of conducting a covert operation. Thanks to this show, I now know that if I have get into a fight, I should try to have it in a bathroom. Lots of hard surfaces...

Jeffrey Donovan is great as Michael Westen. Surprisingly funny and quirky despite his intimidating appearance, he reminds one of a young Peter Weller, and he carries that same "smart tough guy" vibe that Weller carried in his prime. And Bruce Campbell is amazing. His character, Sam Axe, is a former American intelligence agent, once one of the best, now a washed-up has-been living off a government pension and the generosity of any of a small number of Sugar Mommies. Bruce Campbell, playing a dashing hero gone to seed. The casting gods were smiling that day. Sharon Gless is also quite good as Michael's overbearing mother. The only weak link in the cast is Gabrielle Anwar's Fiona. Originally played with an Irish brogue, evidently the producers realizes early on how bad the accent was, so they changed it to an American accent. And Gabrielle Anwar's astounding skininess doesn't help matters either. Ugh, collarbones.

It's interesting to think about, how our three main characters each represent different schools of espionage, and how it reflects their personalities. Sam is the old-school international man of mystery, handsome, roguish, charming, and much smarter than he appears to be at first sight. Fiona the former terrorist, volatile and self-destructive. Michael, the post-Cold War agent, a freelance jack-of-all-trades, smart, resourceful, able to play smooth and rough with equal measure whenever the occasion calls for it. It's fun to watch these three mesh, bicker, and finally come together for a greater good. It's delightfully fun to watch.

Well, these are the shows I'm watching. I don't know if my opinion counts for much in the Grand Design, but I think I needed to get this out there. I hope you enjoyed my ramblings. Good night.

3 Comments:

Anonymous portrait in flesh said...

Any time I see Bear eating maggots and drinking his own pee, it fills me with delight.

...you know, that's a little more info about your Boston Creme filling than I think I want to know.

I've yet to catch "Man vs. Wild" (can't do Bear and Flash at the same time), and I seem to keep missing "Burn Notice." I'm still a bit adverse to a non-sputtering-rocket-on-a-string version of "Flash Gordon"...call me old-fashioned, but I like seeing men in short shiny skirts every now and then.

I'm trying to think if there's anything new on TV that I've stumbled across, but it seems like all I find most of the time are reruns. I just miss my puppet shows too much, I guess.

2:21 PM, September 09, 2007  
Blogger Marxo Grouch said...

Really enjoying Burn Notice. It's definitely hearkens back to action shows of yore, a dash of Magnum P.I., a sprinkle of The Rockford Files, etc. I was equally thankful that they dropped the brogue after one episode; I find Anwar much more attractive than, apparently, you do, but I would have had a hard time of it if she had kept that up. I've been a fan of Donovan's ever since I saw him as a spree killer on 'Homicide.' I even thought his presence in Blair Witch 2 elevated that movie. And, as if that weren't enough already, this show has turned my mother into a Bruce Campbell fan. It's not like she's going to be sitting through any Evil Dead films or anything, but still.

Anywaym apparently it's done so well they've already ordered up new episodes, so, yay.

3:17 AM, September 19, 2007  
Blogger Anarquistador said...

And the worst part about the brogue? Not only was it bad, it was WRONG. Fiona's supposed to be from NORTHERN Ireland. They sound different in Northern Ireland. Not only was it a bad accent, it was a wrong accent! So glad they got rid of it.

10:43 AM, September 28, 2007  

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