September 23, 2007

Fall 2007 TV Roundup: Gossip Girl

Posted in Television at 11:20 pm by Calico Jack

Take six obscenely wealthy, narcissistic, preening teenagers with identity issues and put them in a private school in NYC’s Upper East Side. Add a group of vacuous parents to give their children something to rebel against. Mix two cases of attempted rape for spice, and a raft of underage drinking (at hotel bars, no less!) and smoking for reality. Cook under high pressure for forty-five minutes, being careful to remove any humor bubbles from the mix. Top it off with an omniscient narrator who refers to everyone by their first initial only and you have the CW’s new show Gossip Girl, an “I can’t believe it’s this trashy” thematic descendant of the O.C. — only without the O.C.‘s occasional charm and beautiful coastline.

It’s easy to see why Gossip Girl might have a huge following among teenagers and fans of the book series on which this show is based, although to be fair I don’t think there’s much overlap between those two groups. Regardless, this is yet another drama focusing on the troubled exploits of teens far better off than the rest of the country. Like all good teenagers, they must deal with the same problems as everyone else: how to get the attention of that hot girl when you’re effectively invisible, how to deal with cliquish rejection, how to fit eight people into a stretch limo on the way to yet another unsupervised party…okay, perhaps not the last one. But these sundry (and ultimately shallow) struggles work wondrous magic on the hormonally-driven minds of watching teens, giving them reasons to both lust after and identify with their favorite characters.

Gossip Girl has this formula hardwired into the show’s makeup, with a wealth of hinted-at subplots the creators can use in future episodes to drive the show forward. Serena (Blake Lively) has recently returned from boarding school after her younger brother attempted suicide; now she’s struggling to find her place once more in the clique taken over by former best friend Blair (Leighton Meester). Blair’s boyfriend Nate (Chace Crawford) had a fling with Serena before she left, creating even more animosity between the two girls. And Nate’s pot-smoking best friend Chuck (Ed Westwick) tries to rape Jenny (Taylor Momsen), whose brother Dan (Penn Badgley) has a long-unfulfilled crush on Serena. Aloof from all of these characters is Gossip Girl herself (voiced by Veronica Mars alum Kristen Bell), a popular blogger who always seems to have the latest juicy tidbits about the goings-on in their social scene. It’s quite easy to suspect the producers perused the list of teen drama clichés and grabbed the ones that had the most exploratory potential. But apparently this is the kind of stuff of which some people cannot get enough.

For the rest of us, Gossip Girl serves not as a show of reference, but as a look into the lives of people too self-obsessed to make any meaningful contributions to the world around them. They exchange depth in relationships for trite, sex-filled romps, maturity for puerility, and self-control for drunken abandon. It’s all presented with an attempted sheen of glamour, but a lingering taste of ugliness is all that remains once the credits roll. At least the O.C. managed to retain a sense of fun and lightheartedness through most of its run; but the characters in Gossip Girl take themselves far too seriously, constantly backstabbing or scheming against each other — although I suppose this show’s name speaks for itself. Gossip Girl is lacking the one thing that defines its network sister show One Tree Hill: a heart. Over the space of four seasons, the characters on One Tree Hill have argued and fought and come to blows and emotionally devastated each other. But they’ve also loved and comforted and protected and learned, and in the process given us a reason to invest in their struggles. The premise of Gossip Girl leaves room for no such fuzzy-heartedness; after all, it’s hard to gossip when good things happen to growing people. This show is nasty, and unapologetic about its tone.

And yet on some level it’s strangely compelling. There’s little empathy to be shared with these characters and their self-inflicted problems; even the “good-hearted” Dan and Serena come across as ostentatiously self-absorbed. But Gossip Girl might just satisfy that occasional need to feel superior to others; I suspect a lot of people will watch this show with an air of delicious condescension. For even with the insane displays of wealth and luxury that these teens enjoy, their lives are quite empty. And that makes most people far more wealthy than Serena and her clique.

Final Verdict: Gossip Girl is this season’s guiltiest semi-pleasure. Unabashedly vicious, it will most likely spark fervent admiration amongst the 12-19 age group and “I can’t believe I’m watching this” addiction for everyone else. But the very themes which give this show its bite also make it rather dangerous for the more easily influenced younger set. Parents beware.

Season Pass on TiVo? I’m not quite hooked yet, but I like the idea of watching a show where I can purge all of my pent-up disdain for certain people I’ve run across the preceding week. If it’s still acerbically watchable a month from now, I’ll set a season pass.

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September 20, 2007

Fall 2007 TV Roundup: Torchwood

Posted in Television at 11:35 pm by Calico Jack

I didn’t realize the BBC’s Torchwood was a spin-off of their long-running series Doctor Who until well after I saw the pilot episode. It’s most likely a good thing, since I’ve never been a huge fan of Doctor Who‘s odd mix of science fiction ingredients. But this fall during my weekly viewings of the guilty pleasure Hotel Babylon, BBC America kept airing promos for a new show that would anchor their “Supernatural Saturdays” lineup. The previews looked like a mashup between the X-Files and Hellboy, with a bit of Hex thrown in for sex appeal. There hasn’t been a decent alien-based sci-fi show in years, and I’m rather fond of most British television (Doctor Who notwithstanding), so I set my TiVo to record the pilot and hoped for the best.

The setup is quite intriguing: an extra-governmental agency investigates crimes, supernatural and otherwise, in Cardiff and the surrounding area, using whatever alien tech they can scavenge to aid them in solving mysteries and protecting the Earth. Eve Myles stars as Gwen Cooper, a Welsh cop recruited into the team by Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), the swinging leader of Torchwood with quite a few secrets of his own. It’s through Gwen’s eyes that the first series is presented, as we learn along with her the dangers of being tasked as the first line of defense against alien intruders.

As I said, Torchwood‘s premise is rather engaging, like a weekly, less-humorous version of Men in Black (notice I didn’t say it was original). Unfortunately, the show’s execution itself left me rather cold. I think it borrows almost too heavily from other sci-fi; after seeing several episodes, I don’t think Torchwood has quite come into its own as a television show. Much of it is disjointed and unwieldy, especially the interactions among the cast. When Gwen is first introduced to what she is told is a crack team of agents, Captain Jack warns her that the use of alien technology is highly restricted, that none of it should be removed from the base without permission. Yet in the very next scene we see each member smuggling a piece home for his or her own personal gain. Even though this scene is played for laughs, I was instantly wondering what kind of crack team would flagrantly violate Harkness’s pronouncement — unless there were more layers than what Gwen realized. But no, later in the episode the consequences of these decisions become startlingly apparent, and the jarring tonal change is unsatisfying rather than exciting. However, apart from that shocker of an ending, the rest of the episodes have been numbingly predictable, lacking sharp characterization and dense plotting that might have excused some of its more pronounced flaws.

Torchwood wants to be a jack-of-all-trades, combining the best parts of sci-fi from the aforementioned Hellboy, Men in Black, and X-Files, with an interdimensional rift (also known as a Hellmouth, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) thrown in for extra credit. But Torchwood has neither the serious pacing of Mulder and Scully’s investigations nor the visual gags and crackling dialogue of Buffy. Its characters are often juvenile when they can least afford to be, and there is a disconcerting amount of adult content for a daughter show of the family-friendly Doctor Who. It has some of the more bloody violence shown on British television, and its sexual content seems to be haphazardly thrown in as a heavy-handed way to let the audience know that this isn’t for the kids — which is sad, really, because I think a lighter take on the proceedings (yes, much along the lines of the good Doctor’s show) might make Torchwood rather more compelling.

Final verdict: This spin-off of Doctor Who is much darker than its predecessor, but lacks a strong narrative thread to tie its grab bag of sci-fi elements together. Some of its problems might be attributed to growing pains; but unless it gets a handle on what it wants to be, Torchwood might end up as a cliché-ridden alternative to better science fiction television. Still, there is a spark of promise at its core waiting to be drawn out.

Season pass on TiVo? I’m giving this show a few more chances to hold my attention, since I really do want it to succeed.

September 17, 2007

Fall 2007 TV Roundup: The Big Bang Theory

Posted in Television at 11:34 pm by Calico Jack

CBS’s new show The Big Bang Theory (airing Mondays at 8:30) is a three-camera sitcom with a one-joke premise. Two socially awkward geeks meet their new apartment neighbor, a tantalizingly pretty girl who seems to exist solely to let said geeks make tepid jokes about wanting to mate with her. Does that sound interesting?

The Big Bang Theory is a victim of this fall’s TV trend. Every year, a new show will break out, spawning a host of imitators over the following seasons as networks scramble to find that elusive magic formula for a show’s success. Last autumn focused on Lost clones, or at least shows with large casts and season-long plot arcs. Out of that crop of new programs the only one to gain some measure of success was NBC’s Heroes, a pulpy story about superheroes that lacked the complexity or depth of Lost but was entertaining enough on its own merits. (One could also make an argument for the successful resurrection of CBS’s Jericho, yet it remains to be seen if its shortened second season will fare any better than its first.) But I digress.

This year, geeks are TV’s hot new property. The popularity of shows like The Office and the huge devotion to Heroes’ character Hiro Nakamura have persuaded networks that American audiences are perfectly willing to watch shows about technology-oriented people with maladroit social skills. Now NBC is premiering their new dramedy Chuck, about an electronics store salesman turned superspy; and has a midseason replacement sitcom called The IT Crowd, yet another remake of a vastly superior British series. Not wanting to be left out of the game, CBS commissioned The Big Bang Theory for at least six episodes. With any luck, it won’t last longer than its original run.

For a show like The Big Bang Theory to work, it has to ground its situations in something that at least resembles real life. But this sitcom is so over-the-top in its character portrayals and so utterly lacking in subtlety that it’s likely to leave the audience exhausted rather than amused. Johnny Galecki (Leonard) and Jim Parsons (Sheldon) are stereotypical nerds: they have a really hard time talking to girls, their apartment is littered with conveniently placed gadgets to ensure the audience knows this is a Nerd Room, and their conversations consist of arguments about Stephen Hawking theories and musings on the opposite gender (of which they know absolutely nothing). Leonard and Sheldon’s dialogue is supposed to give this sitcom most of its laughs, but the supposed humor is trite and predictable — and the extremely obnoxious laugh track will suck any remaining good cheer one might have for this show. I’ve always despised those sitcoms that rely on a laugh track to let their audiences know where the jokes are supposed to be. It’s a crutch for the humor-impaired, and I respect a show much more if it feels comfortable enough with its writing to let it hit or miss on its own. But one of the ingredients of a traditional sitcom is a laugh track…only The Big Bang Theory sounds like it has two. And even ignoring that part, I wonder how long a sitcom like this can last with having its range of jokes so limited. The writers can’t put in really geeky jokes that might get big laughs from a few, because most people won’t get the references. Instead they’re left with painting a broad comedic vista — not a good recipe for future success.

I would be remiss as a critic if I didn’t mention the other part of The Big Bang Theory: the girl to which Sheldon and Leonard (even their names are geeky!) are so awkwardly attracted. Penny (Kaley Cuoco) is a waitress at the Cheesecake Factory, recently broken up with her meathead boyfriend. She’s pretty, perky, good-natured, and utterly vapid. Even more than the “Hey, look at us! We’re geeks!” stereotype, I hate blond bimbos. And Penny fits that label better than nearly every other character on network TV. She doesn’t understand a sentence of Sheldon and Leonard’s, even though their discussions are rather mainstream (by way of writer necessity). It’s easy to see why the two geeks are physically attracted to her, but there is something slightly creepy in the way which they obsess over the fact that there is a Real! Live! Girl! sitting in their apartment. Penny, on the other hand, is still completely vacant to her new neighbors’ intentions, cheerfully ignoring their social awkwardness and adopting a perpetually puzzled frown when they go off on a wormhole tangent. To call their exchanges “discourse” elevates the conversation far beyond what generosity dictates, even for a new show still finding its legs.

Final verdict: The Big Bang Theory is a mess of a new sitcom, eschewing authentic observations on geeky life for tired humor and mediocrity. There might be hope for it if the writing gets sharper, the characters let go of some of their more stereotypical traits, and Penny has a wee bit of a brain enhancement. But I won’t be holding my breath.

Season pass on TiVo? Absolutely not.