Sunday, January 22, 2012

The TV Dump (i)

Jumping Small Sharks Often?

The phrase jump the shark comes from a scene in the fifth season premiere episode of the American TV series Happy Days and aired on September 20, 1977. In the episode, the central characters visit Los Angeles, where a water-skiing Fonzie (Henry Winkler), wearing swim trunks and his trademark leather jacket, jumps over a confined shark, answering a challenge to demonstrate his bravery. For a show that in its early seasons depicted universally relatable experiences against a backdrop of 1950s nostalgia, this marked an audacious, cartoonish turn towards attention-seeking gimmickry and continued the faddish lionization of an increasingly superhuman Fonzie. The series continued for nearly five years after that, with a number of changes in cast and situations. However, it is commonly believed that the show, out of ideas and even trapped in its own success (largely due to the disproportionate popularity of the "Fonzie" character and the show's (executives') intense desire to continue "milking" that), began a downhill slide, becoming a caricature of itself often filled with little more than its popular catch phrases and character mannerisms.
It would probably be true to say that nowadays the expression is synonymous with drastic changes of direction reflecting almost desperate measures to continue the life of something - normally TV.

In my experience, the show I'm about to talk about jumped the shark with episode 8 of the first season, in probably a valiant attempt to stave off certain cancellation. Even if the producers had always intended the show to go the way it did, that particular episode felt so like a tying up all those uninteresting subplots and going in a direction the viewers of those first 8 episodes probably didn't expect. I'm talking about Fringe.

Now in its fourth season and in the supposed graveyard of Friday nights, Fringe may well have jumped the shark several times in its 70 odd episodes already. The end of the 3rd season was notable for one thing - the disappearance/removal of Peter Bishop from time. Bishop Junior is the son of Walter Bishop, the mad scientist recruited by the FBI's Fringe Division to solve the unsolvable. Fringe is like CSI: Barking and not the place in Essex. Peter was born in an alternative universe, stolen by a desperate Walter after the death of his own Peter and saved and brought up in 'our' reality. What you also need to know is that Peter is an anomaly; he should never have survived in any reality, but because he did the order of everything is out of whack. Enter the Watchers, a bunch of bald suit-wearing throwbacks to the 1950s, who make sure that what should be is and their own origins are far from clear - they appear to be otherworldly entities charged with protecting the space time continuum.

Mad enough for you? Well, that doesn't even scratch the surface. The lovely Anna Torv who plays agent Olivia Dunham has a fucked up history that is almost as crazy as Peter and Walter's; throw in a cow, lots of hallucinogenic drugs, madness, prog rock, shape shifters, umpteen dissections, an FBI agent who is an idiot savant in another reality but is essentially a surrogate babysitter for the totally crazy Walter in our world and you're still just getting to the next level. Fringe is barking, but possibly its madness is just not enough...

You could argue that Peter saved the world at the end of season 3 and his sacrifice was for history to be reset so that he didn't have a part to play in it, but while he disappeared into nothingness, he didn't and now finds himself in a reality that isn't the one he remembers and, of course, no one knows who he is apart from the fact he should be dead. And this new series has effectively become Fringe's shark moment.

The problem is we're dealing with a TV series like so many before it is faced with cancellation at the end of every series; season 4 appears to be incredibly ambitious for a show that industry insiders have forecast will be lucky to see a 5th season. The die hard fans who stuck with it through the first 3 series have been introduced to a new reality where only Peter Bishop is the same person and with that comes bags of unfinished sub plots and things that happened during the first 3 series that have seemingly either been completely forgotten about (convenient) or are retelling things in a different way from how they did happen. Confused yet? If you watched it, it would only be mild confusion; I've omitted a lot from this attempted short description of the series.

We're 9 episodes into this new look Fringe and the 9th episode was the first one of the latest season to actually feel like a proper Fringe episode; but it's just retelling a story from season 3 in a different way and that worries me a lot. What also worries me is we're almost halfway through a series; it has had its major season break - over Christmas - and we're heading into late winter and spring when the popular shows will ratchet up the tension and move the story along. I'm beginning to think that we're being duped by Peter's desires...

Peter Bishop has enlisted the two alternative Walter Bishops to help him return to his reality; they have (finally) both agreed to help him and I think, in fact I'm pretty much convinced, that they will all discover that Peter's reality no longer exists - because he fixed the universe, he can't unfix it so he has a place. So he will have to remain trapped in a universe he is ultimately responsible for saving. This would be a bad thing, not least because we'll have three seasons of simmering subplots that can now either be conveniently forgotten or get turned on their heads - Peter and Olivia became an item towards the end of season 3; but neither Olivias in Peter's new world are that interested in him; because neither of them had ever had their lives altered by Peter (or Walter) the way they had been in the original universe.

I want them to change it back; if for no other reason than ensure the survival of the show; but I also see it being cancelled - before they film the final episodes - so they can wrap it all up. The thing that made Fringe work so well in the second half of the first season and the subsequent two were the great and odd relationship between Walter and Peter; the development of Dunham from hard nosed FBI career woman into someone plunged into a very surreal nightmare; and that general feeling the cast had grown together so well that they were now this 'family' - they had all developed, become friends, depended on each other and now it's like we're having to get to know them all again, except for Peter.

I keep looking back at this review and thinking it's a hotchpotch of vague paragraphs; like the cohesion is missing from it; like I'm trying to tell you too much and getting bogged down with the minutiae and that's a little like how Fringe plays now. It was, for at least two years, my favourite TV show - Bonkers TV I called it, and that's real praise for something made in the USA - but now there's something missing...

Nobody Gets Out Alive

JJ Abrams is the man responsible for Fringe and he's also the driving force behind Alcatraz, a new mystery series that seems to have been cut from the same cloth as Fringe.

In fact, there's a lot of similarities to the opening episodes of the other show, not least in the recruitment of the female cop getting coerced into working for a special division of the FBI and because the lead actress is attractive, but like Anna Torv, not conventionally attractive. It also stars Hugo from Lost as a comicbook writer and authority on Alcatraz. Hugo has benefited from his time on the wacky island and is now twice the size he was when working in Hawaii; he drifts around the first two episodes like a pantomime Dame Princess Margaret on skates (and he looks old).

Alcatraz is about X number of prisoners and guards who all disappear - instantly - during 1963 and start to magically reappear in 2012, carrying on from where they were before they were incarcerated. My first impressions were that it's played slightly overwrought; my second impression was that it's going to be 'Prisoner of the Week', with each week focusing on a different inmate and his story from 1963; with the 2012 covert FBI team (or are they?) hunting down the convicts and re-incarcerating them in the 21st century facsimile of the old prison. The first two episodes did nothing to change those impressions.

I like time travel theories and stories; always have; but this doesn't feel like one. This feels like a conveniently placed idea to allow the show to be clever. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't brilliant. It didn't have the oomph you expect from something like this and even when the hint of a mystery subplot was introduced, I didn't find myself going, "Oooh!" I just thought, "Ooh, the USA have finally, successfully, applied the rules of prime time drama to science and fantasy."

I just can't see where this is going and I saw elements of The 4400 in it and anyone with a good memory will remember that The 4400 started well, quickly turned into a kind of V (in that most of the actors left and we were left with all the really uninteresting supporting cast) and disappeared up its own arse in an attempt to be seen as different. I think Alcatraz will do the same (at the moment).

Being Remade

That most brilliant of BBC3 dramas Being Human is either going to end after the next series or will go off in a new direction with new cast members; either way, it's one of those British series that the Americans actually envy us for and subsequently the series concept was bought by SyFy (not the best of moves on current form) and turned into a US version (or Canadian if you want to pick bones).

This version follows the UK version's basic themes, but has gone off in a slightly more Americanised way. The series probably works well because the special effects budget is small and it is character rather than set piece led. It isn't a patch on the UK version, but... it does have some elements that are interesting and the Yanks are doing something different with the ghost, while sticking to the same journey.

The biggest problem the series has is that it's just another vampire show and people are growing tired of vampires; heck, they're growing bored with zombies already, so the day before yesterday's big thing is on to a staking to nothing, to be honest. Sam Witwar - Aiden the vampire - is probably the most recognisable actor in the series (he played Doomsday in Smallville), therefore his story appears to be the main thrust of the 3-way and one episode into the second season and that has grown boring and dull and that's without the imminent new character we're going to be introduced to next week.

This is a show that is a bit like Smallville in that it's pretty much throwaway TV that you will forget all about until the next episode. It does have stuff happen in it, but there's this feeling that it's turning into a different show. It lacks the black humour of the UK version; the characters are struggling to make you want to like them - even Sam Huntington's werewolf just can't match Russell Tovey's version, even if he is the most likeable character and his girlfriend/werewolf character is no longer a plain Jane, but the fittest doctor in the hospital - but this is an American version where even geeks are gorgeous.

Buffy versus Elena

As many regular readers of my TV rants know, I love The Vampire Diaries and over the last twelve months I have likened it more and more to the fabulous Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In a film and TV world that is overrun with vampires, werewolves, zombies and other scary shit, you would think that VD is a shoo-in for being derided, hated and cancelled. I mean, it looks like Twilight on paper; feels like Beverley Hills 90125 and really has become the post modern equivalent of Joss Whedon's fabulous series.

Oddly enough, as I've mentioned before, VD started so badly that it appeared to jump the shark at the end of episode 3 of the first series. It was like after the making of the opening episodes, the makers looked at the finished product and thought, "Oh shit; this stinks!" So they seemed to tag an extra scene onto the end of the really flaccid 3rd episode and suddenly things started to happen. Gradually over the space of three series, it has morphed into one of the best series on TV, if you look beyond the frivolity, miscast teenagers (who aren't) and the glossy Dallas feel.

Now, halfway through the 3rd season, it really has become Buffy, even down to the lacklustre Elena Gilbert's transformation into ass-kicking potential heroine. Every character from Buffy has an opposite in VD: a witch, a werewolf, a wise-cracking admirably nasty vampire and the goody two shoes other vampire who can go bad; the Xander; the Dawn and a Giles in the form of Alaric Saltzman. Every where you look there's a parallel with BtVS and that's not a bad thing.

I spent last week watching the final dozen episodes from the final season of BtVS; I just had a whim and wanted to be reminded how Spike became a legend. The weird thing about BtVS is that it wasn't without a bag full of flaws; even in those last dozen episodes, there was this feeling that not all the writers were on the same page. But, in terms of a series, it still remains a triumphant attempt at doing a comedy/horror series where the comedy was deliberately incidental rather than arranged and you always felt that it was always capable of going out to leftfield for impetus. VD is so similar at times that you wonder if the producers have just decided to follow that template, flaws and all.

Currently, VD is continually upping the tempo; it feels like every episode is a game changer and one wonders if they can keep the pace up and also keep the stories as interesting. You get bogged down in some things at times, but in general the writers seem to have taken the path of following the path of cliché bashing - every time you think you know what is going to happen, it tends to, but not at all in the way you would expect. It remains fresh, even if the 'teenagers' all have world weary look of actors in their mid to late 20s, most of the supporting cast are really good and just like BtVS, the central character has actually become the most peripheral; the viewer no longer really gives a toss about Elena, because all of her friends are so much more likeable.

It's hard to think that we were going to give it up at the 40 minute mark of episode 3 and now it's first thing burned onto a DVD; but even that has echoes of Buffy. Arguably one of the greatest ever episodes of TV ever was The Body, the episode that dealt with Buffy's mother's death; this was preceded by most definitely the worst ever episode of Buffy and arguably one of the corniest TV episodes ever. If that specific episode had ended before the final 60 seconds, it could well have driven a big nail into the series' coffin (it was not going to be renewed for a 6th season unless another network stepped in), but instead it used a really crappy episode to prelude one of the most powerful arcs in TV history. VD did the same to save the series and while it might not have been done in such a dramatic way, it introduced a game changer that set the tone for the what was to follow.

Round Up

We have half a dozen episodes of Grimm to watch; the first 4 were okay and we've decided to stick with it, but with so many other 'must see' things, it's about finding the time to watch them. We opted to stick with Person of Interest, but I somehow expect us to drop that at the expense of cluttering up my hard drive with unwatched episodes.

And of course this is the biggest problem with us; we have at least a dozen other things to watch, but our TV habit isn't that big. We rarely watch anything on a Tuesday or Thursday; we like to watch films, even if most of them are crap and the wife has a slew of stuff she watches - history, DIY, animals, costume dramas and cerebral quizzes, of which I have no interest in at all. Then you have the TV we watch together, which doesn't amount to a huge amount, but still eats holes into our windows of opportunity. Subsequently, we still haven't watched The Wire.

We have Kelsey Grammar's Boss to watch; seasons of Nurse Jackie and some British stuff like The Inbetweeners and I want to watch Ideal. There is 46 gigabytes of material to watch, which at a rough guess works out as about 200 hours of TV to watch and mix all of this with the other deciding factor - apathy. I need to really want to watch some of this stuff and that hasn't happened yet.

TV and my TV habits is a mishmash at the moment; a bit like this blog entry...

No comments:

Post a Comment