Monday, October 3, 2011

Quick Show-Quartet round-up (26/08/2011)

I managed to get through four TV shows in roughly the last month, so let's have a few words about them.


Way back, when I was bringing up what a horrible film the "Black Swan" really was and how humanity will burn for clipping Snyder's wings with prematurely condemning "Sucker Punch",  I mentioned a show called "Greek" as an escape from TV's summer dullness until the new season starts coming Fall. The show started in the summer of 2007 and it was one of those few shows that run their seasons during the summer hiatus. I caught it back when it started, but for some reason I only watched up to the first half of the second season. Impressions were mostly positive, both from myself and the critics (and apparently the audience, since it went on for four seasons).

"Greek" was a college comedy, focusing around a cast of characters deep within the Greek system in the fictional Cyprus-Rhodes University... without, apparently, any pretense of subtlety (why was the university named after two Greek islands, as if the name of the fucking show wasn't clear enough is beyond me). It wasn't anything special and I can't say that if you never see it you'll miss out on anything; it's been done before and will undoubtedly be done again. It was a show made to offer light-hearted escapism for people who don't already have any in the middle of the summer. In other words, it was for sad bastards like myself.

But the characters were all likable, the drama valid, the premise interesting (at least for those of us who aren't familiar with the idea of the Greek system) and the humour worked nine out of ten times.

And then, the first season ended.

Okay, the second season wasn't actually bad; it was more of the same. The characters were still fine and the humour still worked, but by that point some fundamental issues with the series were starting to show and kept ringing a loud alarm of what could happen if they were not addressed. And, unfortunately, they weren't

The third season was a mess. Some of the humour still brought about a few laughs, especially if you were in tune with the show's overall mood. But character relationships started making little sense and changing too fast and too arbitrarily, as it's customary for all stupid teen-focused drama that inevitably screws up all shows aimed at ages below twenty-two. However, its worst enemy turned out to be its very framework. The politics of the Greek system were blown out of proportion; at least I think they were. I can't personally attest to that, as something similar doesn't exist over here, but let's just say that if that's how it really works, I can see why the celebrated "Pursuit of Happiness" in that country is synonymous with "beating the competition". The politics rarely made any sense and characters were wholly ruthless toward each other. And that becomes a problem, because when you see how steeped they are in this whole "Greek scene", you inevitably find yourself thinking " cool off guys, it's just fucking college!"

This also had an effect on the characters, whose likability saw a rapid decline during the season. One female character, in particular, started subscribing to so many "bitch" clichés (in regards to her relationships, specifically) from other teen shows that even the series itself outright acknowledges it (by mentioning she's reached the point of Felicity from that wretched J.J. Abrams show).

By the fourth season, it was obvious that the show didn't have any legs to stand on and ratings were way down. With most of the cast having already graduated, extremely contrived reasons were presented for stuffing them all back in campus. One of the main characters resolves his series-wide arc in, like, two episodes and the story progresses toward an arbitrary, overblown ending just to wrap things up as bombastically as possible before the mid-season mark, when the series was axed.

As I said, there is no reason to look for the show. All I can say is that, it was mostly fun while it lasted and I expect you'd have some fun too, should you ever run across it.


Prior to this, I used to think of "Dollhouse" as Joss Whedon's worst work to-date. I had only seen the first season and I had liked it quite a bit, but word on the second season was that it just wasn't good (by Whedon standards, anyway), though I had yet to verify it myself (as the second season aired while I was still in the military). Much like "Firefly" this was another casualty in FOX's war against original television drama.

Now that I've actually seen the whole thing, I have to reconsider my position on the average IQ of viewers and fans alike. Okay, yes, "Dollhouse" doesn't have Buffy's heart, or Angel's intrigue and mythology, or Firefly's irresistible appeal. But saying that Whedon wasn't doing his job with this (true accusation, by the way) is just being a dick.

The premise is about an organization that has set up the titular Dollhouses around the world. Their job is to take volunteers and use technology to wipe their minds clean, then imprint them with various personalities and 'rent' them to clients. These personalities, determined by the clients' needs, range from simple sex dolls to federal agents or spouses for playing 'pretend'. The story revolves around one doll, Echo, played by Eliza Dushku and the characters revolving her include the boss of the L.A. Dollhouse branch, a couple of other dolls, the tech guy, her handler and an FBI Agent that tries to uncover the truth about this corporation.

The show wasn't received well early on and that was largely due to the fact that FOX demanded the first five episodes (of the first season's mere thirteen) be completely procedural without furthering the plot, so they can draw in more viewers (this is what network executives think of your attention span, viewers). Once the plot got underway ratings had already dropped, but if you stuck with it, it was a fucking ride! The first season, once it moved away from the procedural bullshit and started furthering the plot, set up a wonderful framework to be exploited in the future. The second season blew up with action and character development as we got to the real meat of the story, the question of whether or not people are just blank slates to be imprinted with personalities via their experiences (also what we in the MGS fandom call "Scene") or controlled by the more powerful.

Look, I don't want to get into any more details, because when Whedon does plot and character, he does it like no other and it's unfair to spoil. All I'll say is that, for a show that suffered from network mandates worse than Firefly did (and that was the show that aired out-of-order because the network has jerking off and got canceled because of their idiocy), it was full of thrills, surprises and at least two layers of subtext, one of which should really raise some much-belated questions in our minds about the essence of individuality and personal freedoms (also see: "Meme").

Hmm. It seriously never occurred to me how much MGS this show has in it.

Whatever. Watch it. There is a terrible twist in the second-to-last episode (which is a first from Whedon, so far as I recall), but that aside, it's smart, it's well-written, most of the cast turns in wonderful performances, it's fun and even though Dushku isn't the best lead Whedon could've chosen for the show, she spends enough time in skin-tight clothes to make up for it.


Damn. If you want to see exhausting procedural, look no further. The 2003 show about a team of homicide detectives at the Philadelphia Police Department who investigate 'cold cases', murder cases that happened however long ago (the show goes as far back as the 1910s) and eventually the investigations didn't lead anywhere.

The premise was undoubtedly interesting (even though not exactly original) and the presentation of these cases was very smart as well. Victims of horrible crimes, in flashbacks laced with visuals and recognizable music from the era the murder took place in and some flashy, however basic, human drama injected into the whole thing.


First season wasn't so bad. It stuck to its basic premise, but it was new, so it worked. But from the second season on, it started getting old really fast and keep in mind this thing lasted for seven fucking seasons! The problem was that it stuck to its premise a bit too tight, without any intention of doing something worthwhile with it. It was also strictly procedural, with the few running storylines going on for few episodes and mostly toward the later seasons.

And that's not even mentioning the storylines and characters picked up and dropped in milliseconds, without any fucking heads-up. 

In doing all of the above, it fucked up its characters; badly. You know how "House MD" is also traditionally procedural, but you watch it because House is (or at least was) a fascinating character? In Cold Case, all the characters are mere stereotypes of cop shows and not even good ones. Worse yet, the writing is so inept at realizing these stereotypes that it took a while for them to even show.

And they are not even that likable. The lead character's parent issues are far too contrived and the others have no issues that aren't found in any other show, of any type, in any dimension, on any Earth!

I guess one could say that sticking to its procedural nature is why it lasted that long, since it was extremely easy to follow whenever the viewer felt like watching. But even that it cocked up, because soon into the second season, the crimes seemed less and less credible and the cases lacked any sort of distinct flavor. The way the actual murders happened became ridiculous really soon, especially when they involved spouses or family members, who always ended up shoving or shooting or stabbing their loved ones in one second of anger. Who the fuck acts like that? How has human kind not gone extinct yet?

And, of course, being a show created by a woman with a female lead character, it wasn't past being preachy. Because, you know, the way to write good female characters is to point out they are female over and over. It didn't do it much, at least. I think the show reached its nadir in an episode about a murder during Suffrage early last century. The entire fucking department took on the case for no other reason than being asked to by a reporter who wrote about empowered women (because that's how the Police works). The suspects were already dead, the murderer was already dead, there was no justice served, no actual police-work to be done, cops being paid to do work that has no effect on society. And writers being absolute hacks.

Fuck this series. If you're so curious about it, have a look at the first season, then drop it like a disabled baby in ancient Sparta.


Finally, we have what I find a direct comparison to Cold Case; a procedural cop show (which incidentally aired in Cold Case's spot here in-between the season hiatus), which does not suck. The Closer is also in its 7th year and, like Greek, airs in the summer season. It's also still running, but if seven seasons aren't enough to gauge a show's quality, then we may need to rethink our entertainment TV.

The Closer is also a procedural cop show and it also stars a woman detective surrounded by men. Brenda Lee Johnson is transferred from Atlanta to the L.A.P.D. to take on major cases and help out the department's effectiveness, as she is considered to be a 'closer', someone who is good at closing cases fast and efficiently. The writing is sharp and the cases mostly interesting. Kyra Sedgwick plays the lead character like there is no tomorrow, showing a great range especially during her interviews with the suspects and maintaining a genuine sweetness at all other times. She's also supported by a strong cast, who, while all B-rate characters without much drama and even less development, are very likable and even memorable in their simplicity.

That's not to say the show's perfect. It has some serious tonal inconsistencies, sometimes becomes too conventionally cutsie for its own good, especially when Brenda's parents make their contractual appearance at least once per season (usually toward the end, in the Christmas period). The cutsie stuff isn't bad either and the humor is always funny, but this is a show that opened its premiere episode with a naked body covered in stab wounds and blood. You have to pick a tone and stick with it in these things.

Another issue is that, despite Sedgwick's best efforts, seven seasons in and Brenda is starting to become annoying. Her approach to suspects is getting a little old, but the biggest problem is that she's just not that great a person. She's not bad, but she's selfish and self-centered and a workaholic and while she has a good heart and a genuine interest in her victims, she can be very manipulative with little remorse or consequences. To its credit, the show does acknowledge that, mainly through her husband who suffers from her personality quirks the most, but it still doesn't feel like she's getting what she deserves. The writers have made a big effort making her as human as possible (expressed largely through her obsession with comfort food), but those aforementioned quirks can get really irritating in the long run.

But overall, it really is a good show. The tonal shifts are jarring, but it can still do serious drama as well as it did way back when it started. I watched both this and Cold Case back-to-back. With Cold Case, it was an excruciating experience. With The Closer, I barely even understood when I burned through the entire series up to this point. Going back and finding seven seasons may be hard to do, but it's the most fun I've had with a cop show since the early seasons of Law & Order: SVU. Glowing recommendation for this one.


PS: The writers of The Closer are advised to ask a doctor what happens when a 40-something-year-old gets pregnant and stop bringing the issue up all the fucking time as if they're talking about people in their physical prime.

PS-2: Something that screams the difference in quality between the two cop shows is that moral ambiguity in "Cold Case" is swept under the rug and largely hypocritical of the characters, whereas in "The Closer" it's a running plot point that leads to drama.
PS-3: I cry foul on touching up Sedgwick's appearance on the latter seasons. I can barely recognize her under all that make-up. The show was great even before the star was an eye-candy, guys.

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