Here’s a mostly comprehensive of the scripted shows I watched this last year and my commentary. More in-depth hashing out of individual shows will likely follow soon.
I watched the pilot to this early, sometime last summer, and expected to cherish the four or so episodes I’d get of it before it got canceled for being quirky, brilliant, and completely unappealing to the majority of TV audiences. Instead, it received rave reviews and had sufficient ratings to earn a full season order early on and then a second season order by the time the short season was done. It would have only been more miraculous if it had been on FOX (for that miracle, see the Terminator comments).
Pushing Daisies takes Bryan Fuller (of Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls)’s quirky morbidity and brings to life the most believable and charming contemporary faerie-tale/folk tale aesthetic that I’ve seen on TV. The omniscient VO narrator should be annoying, trite. But luckily narrator Jim Dale could read the phone book and make it charming. The writing is smart and distinctive, with turns of phrase and repetitions and other elements of a consistent voice that lends to the show’s appeal. The romantic dynamic between leads Lee Pace and Anna Friel provide the ongoing subplot for the series while the duo plus unabashedly profit-centric detective Chi McBride solve murder mysteries in order to collect the rewards, using Lee Pace’s gift for re-animating the dead.
If you are a fan of Fuller’s other work, like faerie tales, appreciate quirky murder mysteries, or have a soul whatsoever, give this one a try.
It’s getting crowded in the police procedural world, what with your CSIs and your NCISes and such. Life sets itself apart from the pack by using an ongoing mystery (Who framed the lead character, and why?) to provide a backdrop for the weekly mysteries solved by leads Charlie Crews (Damian Lewis) and Dani Reese (Sarah Shahi). Crews is a police officer who was falsely imprisoned for 12 years, then released with a huge-and-undisclosed cash settlement and a job as a detective. His partner Reese is a disgraced former undercover agent trying to get back in the driver’s seat of her own life.
But really, the best part of Life is that Crews was saved from going mad/evil in solitary confinement by turning to Zen Buddhism, thanks to his lawyer, played by Brooke Langton. He approaches his investigations with an uncommon and charming perspective, focusing on intuition, reading people, and questioning common convention. All of this goes on while he struggles to keep his cool while investigating the conspiracy that put him in jail. Damian Lewis puts in marvelous performances, and the ongoing arc shows the ways in which shows are learning to balance a LOST-inspired long-term mystery while maintaining tension episode-by-episode so that casual viewers can hop in and enjoy.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
This show was supposed to suck. Easy money said that it’d be a trite, second-rate attempt to cash in on a once-successful franchise. Terminator’s technophobia is soo late 20th century, I mean, seriously! Fans were lining up to get their hate on.
Too bad for them that the show is awesome. Lena Headey is a powerful and compelling Sarah Connor, a rival to Linda Hamilton’s portrayal according to some. Thomas Dekker, beloved as almost-certainly-gay sidekick Zach to cheerleader Claire in Heroes turns in a strong performance as the young John Connor, coming into his own as a warrior and a leader. And Summer Glau, while in danger of being typecast, is a fine counter-point to Arnold’s oversized overbearing menace as Cameron, an advanced terminator sent back from the future to protect John Connor. The show is true to the tone and material of the first two Terminator films, and completely ignores the plot of the third while stealing some of the more useful material. Brian Allen Greene shows up later on, and surprises those who knew only his 90210 teen-heartthrob-y-ness by being solid-to-good.
In addition to the fact that this show was supposed to suck, it was also supposed to get canceled right away once people discovered it was awesome. SF/F fans mumbling something about a space western are prickly around FOX and genre shows, but this time around the people calling the shots had their brains on straight and were paying attention to the opportunity they had in bringing the show in during the no-new-scripted-shows drought of the WGA strike, and pushed the HELL out of the show as it was starting up, to great success. The first season only got 9 episodes, but in that time they established a good serial rhythm with building plots, continuous tension and interesting character development, especially with regards to Cameron’s emotional development/learning and the 4th dimensional war being fought between future John Connor and Skynet.
Also, it had the 2nd best use ever of a Johnny Cash song in the film/tv medium, implementing “The Man Comes Around” in the season finale to remind us all how much of inexorable juggernauts Terminators really are.
The Big Bang Theory
The first time around, I didn’t like this show. I watched the pilot and took it as comedy making fun of geeks/nerds without the core of compassion for the subculture(s) that is necessary to not offend me. I allowed myself to be convinced to give the show another try, and found that over time, the show finds the right balance between laughing at nerds for being different and laughing about nerdy things because they’re funny.
This show, with a catchy theme song from the Barenaked Ladies (major geek cred, there), stars four nerdy geeks who work as faculty at USC—in physics, engineering, and whatever Raj actually does. Johnny Galecki is the romantic lead male as Dr. Leonard Hofstadter, who is the most socially capable of the gang, alongside neurotic super-genius Dr. Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) and their buddies, would-be-ladies’ man engineer Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) and Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar), who can’t speak around women without alcohol or experimental drugs.
Their nerdy equilibrium is shattered when blonde beauty Penny (Kaley Cuoco) moves in next door. Penny is an average gorgeous woman who moved out from the Midwest to start an acting career and ended up moving in next to Leonard and Sheldon. Leonard is instantly enamored, and the season unfolds as Leonard negotiates between his crush and his friendship with Penny while she acclimates to the area while learning how to understand and befriend the clatch of socially-awkward geniuses.
The show’s stance on the maturity/lack therof regarding geekdom/nerdiness isn’t exactly revolutionary, it refuses to outright condemn the nerds/geeks, and over the season builds towards a bridging of the cultural gap between everywoman Penny (TV everywoman, that is, ie super-hot) and the nerdy quartet.
Oh, LOST. You lost your way in season three, then found it once more thanks to Desmond “Ulysses” Hume and a realization that while the slashers and shippers love the Jack/Sawyer/Kate triangle, the rest of the audience wants to know what the frack is up with the island.
Season four brings us to a crossroads, with flash-forwards to some of the survivors off the island juxtaposed with the arrival of a mysterious freighter of would-be rescuers who of course turn out to have their own agenda with the island.
LOST season four continues to develop Benjamin Linus as one of the best TV villains of the era, and does a much better job of moving forward the plot and explaining things about the island even as the questions continue to pile up.
How I Met Your Mother
I was actually expecting this to be the last season of the show. A lot of the momentum of the third season seemed to be of the ‘lets get things settled so we can wrap up’ variety, but there’s at least one more season to go, wherin I imagine we’ll see the dynamic of the five friends change around once again as they move from being the people of first season towards the versions Older Ted speaks of them speaking to his children. Barney really gets to shine in this season, and we see Lilly and Marshall dealing with the conflicts of being young married adults trying to make it on their own, while Ted flails about trying to find The One.
A lot of shows have a moment that serves as the hook, the moment where you turn to your friend and realize that ‘Holy crap, this is going to be good.’
Chuck’s moment comes before the end of the teaser of the pilot episode when Chuck’s former roommate drops to the floor to the caption of ‘Bryce Larkin – Not an accountant’
Chuck (Zachary Levi) is a mid-twenty-something slacker geek who works at the BuyMore (Best Buy)’s Nerd Herd (Geek Squad) with his best friend, the even-geekier Morgan (Joshua Gomez). He has a loving and supportive sister Ellie (Sarah Lancaster), who is dating fellow doctor Captain Awesome (Ryan McPartlin). Chuck opens an e-mail from former roommate Larkin and inadvertently downloads the entire coded contents of the NSA/CIA data intersect. This makes Chuck a human computer in possession of national security secrets. CIA agent hottie Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski) and stone-cold badass NSA killer John Casey (Adam Baldwin) are assigned as his handlers, and the show follows Chuck trying to keep his life together while acting as an unlikely secret agent when he gets flashes of the intersect’s information.
The show’s appeal is in its charming humane depiction of the characters, who all grow and react in a way that transcends the easy formula (even when the plot actually follows formula). Sarah’s cover is as Chuck’s girlfriend, which is complicated by the fact that Chuck is actually falling for Sarah and Sarah has commitment/job issues regarding former partners. The supporting cast of Morgan, Ellie, Captain Awesome and the other characters of the Buy More lift the show above where it might otherwise settle, and the show is at its strongest when both the Spy and Buy More elements of the story are running on all cylinders.
The show probably has a built-in expiration date, as eventually Chuck will learn how to be a competent agent and be no longer the fish-out-of-water slacker geek. But as long as they keep the balance right and stay true to the characters, it’ll be a great ride.
The remake of Bionic Woman was supposed to be this big thing from BSG co-executive producer David Eick. Take the popular 70s girl-cyborg-power show and re-do it in a contemporary setting with a new gloss and the Battlestar treatment.
It flopped. Michelle Ryan was uninspired and bland as Jaime Sommers, the writing never really clicked, and the hidden darkness paramilitary world-saving group angle just didn’t work for me. Katee Sackhoff of Battlestar fame provided some edgy menace as cracked first bionic woman, but the show just never really came together. Think of this as the failed counterpoint to Terminator, showing how you do and don’t make a super-enhanced ass-kicking female character work in a TV show.
CW favorite Supernatural continued to deliver solid road-trip action-horror goodness, but also faltered some due to the fact that the network noticed the show’s popularity and did you guess what — Pandered.
PANDERING IS BAD! Write for your audience, sure, but there’s a clear distinction in most cases between knowing your audience so you can write for them and trying to cash in on demographic desires. The introduction of Bella and Ruby was an attempt to put more of a female presence into the show, but neither of the characters registered with (many) fans the way I imagine CW brass intended them to. Each added to the dynamic of the season, and ended up as not quite the characters you imagined them to be, but their addition felt blatant, sometimes forced, when really all you need to make the show great is putting Sam and Dean in a room together and have them be brothers while kicking ass.
The metaplot kicks into high gear in season three, evolving the mythology in cool ways that make the moral landscape of the show even more gray. The ending of the season was the right kind of infuriating cliffhanger, the one that makes you demand the following season immediately.
Heroes was last season’s ‘OMG this show is actually good, and popular too?’ genre hit, and it had a not-insignificant sophomore slump, exacerbated by the writer’s strike. Instead of keeping the Heroes together as a nascent super-team, they split up again and return to a status-quo while secrets about the previous generation of supers emerges, Hiro galavants around in feudal Japan and Peter Petrelli gets a much-needed haircut and a much-less-needed Irish damsel in distress girlfriend.
Adam Monroe makes a great character, and the Hiro in Japan stuff was wonderful, but there was the stench of pandering on some of the plotlines, as well as some serious duds in others – the Wonder Twins plotline turned out to be little more than a vehicle for another character’s arc, and not really in a good way.
The show also continued to slip into objectionable ideology regarding people of color, though it also snuck in some encouraging queerness with the Mohinder/Matt Parkman/Molly family unit.
Heroes has lost some of its luster, but it gave us some very strong episodes and I’m hoping Kring trusts his own voice (and that of Loeb and his other staff) more than thinking he needs to pander to the loudest fans’ voices. I’m all for interplay between creator and fans, but, y’know, done well.
Though, really, just keep putting Masi Oka into dangerous and funny situations so he can say things like ‘Gureto Sukotto!’ and I’ll be there until the show gets canned.
I imagine that in the future of media studies, we’ll look back at the 2007-2008 season and talk about the effect of the WGA strike on shows, which ones survived because of or despite of the strike, which shows were killed by it. Despite the drama on the production side, several gems managed to emerge from the mass, and get enough notice to earn themselves a second-season chance. And that at least is encouraging, especially considering the continuing success of some Spec Fic shows, even as the networks try to re-hash every tired trope they can get their hands on trying to replicate Battlestar Galactica and/or LOST.