Legends of the Fall: Television's newest SF shows
Reviewed by K. Tempest Bradford
25 October 2007
The American fall TV season has brought us seven new SF shows to vie for our attention. As often with television, the majority of these shows aren't particularly good. It's not too harsh to say that a few of them are utter crap. That said, at least two of them are really good, and one has problems but may end up better than it started.
Beyond the shows in particular, there is another, overarching problem with the new season: a severe lack of diversity. Once again we're given white males and white males and, for variety, white males. Only two shows (Pushing Daisies and Bionic Woman) can claim any recurring characters of color and those same two shows are the only ones with female leads. I wish I could say that the lack of diversity is the reason why most of these shows fail. It actually has more to do with the lackluster premises and the uninspired writing.
Still, it's not all bad news. The two most promising new programs are Journeyman and Pushing Daisies. Though neither breaks many molds in terms of casting—mostly white people in recurring roles plus exclusively white leads—they have several good things going for them.
Journeyman's premise isn't exactly fresh—man travels through time to make right what once went wrong—but even old ideas can have new twists. Dan Vasser (played by Kevin McKidd) doesn't step into a time machine; his travels take him completely by surprise. He never knows when he's going to end up in the past or where he'll end up or why he's there. And each time he goes back, he disappears from the present, causing a lot of confusion and anger in his friends and family. Eventually he figures out that he's traveling to different time periods in order to help someone. But not always the someone he thinks or in the way he thinks.
There is an additional mystery layered on top of why Dan has traveled to a particular time period—why is he traveling to begin with? A fellow traveler is frustratingly vague on the details, but with each episode Dan and the viewers get a little more information. This Lost-esque style of revealing a little at a time is, so far, keeping me interested and guessing. I hope that the creators don't intend to stretch out the mystery for the next eight seasons, though. Right now there's an interesting arc building that could fulfill itself by the end of the season without killing the show. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.
Journeyman is well-written and engaging, though a little heavy on the relationship angst. And it's on right after Heroes, which should make it especially easy for people who hate to change channels. My other favorite is Pushing Daisies, an incredibly charming show that's a bit like what you'd get if Tim Burton and The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie and the Teletubbies had a baby. I promise you, I mean this in a good way.
The show is about a guy named Ned (Lee Pace) who wields an unusual power. He can touch dead people and bring them back to life. Only for a minute, though. If they stay alive longer than that, someone else nearby dies. If he touches the resurrected person a second time, they are dead forever. Ned runs a pie shop but does work on the side with a private detective, waking up dead people, asking who killed them, then splitting the reward money. But when he comes across his childhood love, Chuck (Anna Friel), he can't bear to give the second touch and lose her forever. So she stays alive and they fall in love. They're just not allowed to touch. Ever.
Pushing Daisies is also notable for its style—it's a "forensic fairy tale" complete with a narrator and cutesy recurring motifs. It's still early, but these elements aren't grating on me yet. Perhaps because the main characters are just so damn charming. Whenever they smile at each other my heart melts. My heart never "melts" for anything.
The supporting cast is great, too. Chi McBride, who plays the private detective, got lucky with a role that doesn't call on him to be a stereotype and also plays to his strengths as an actor. Kristin Chenoweth's Olive Snook did, unfortunately, start out as a stereotype (the jealous, scheming and unworthy blonde) but is slowly moving away from that into deeper territory. If the creators can keep delivering episodes like the first three, ABC definitely has another mega-hit under its belt.
Every new season has its highs and lows. Sadly, this year there are many more of the latter than the former. Moonlight and Flash Gordon have been almost universally panned, so you don't need me to tell you how bad they are. Reaper and Chuck aren't as awful, but they both have major problems.
Reaper is about a guy who, because his parents sold his soul to the devil, has to work as a bounty hunter, capturing escaped souls. Chuck is about a computer geek who, because his college roommate sent him an email containing all of America's national security secrets, is regularly embroiled in dangerous government-related craziness despite his lack of training or clue.
Neither show is very entertaining, though each has its moments. What bothers me about both of them, wildly different as they are, is that they both have the same type of protagonist: the stereotypical geeky man-child who is socially awkward and, when in the presence of XX chromosomes, falls apart predictably. The geeky man-child is not complete without the matching best friend, who is an even more geeky or pathetic or socially inept individual. He's there to make the protagonist look good.
I find it hard to care about or root for this type of character. Not just because he's Yet Another White Guy (though that doesn't help) or because he's presented as a loser (though that helps even less) but because we've seen this guy before. He's everywhere! We've seen his stupid best friend, too. We've seen the story where the hopelessly geeky dude somehow wins the heart of the beautiful and non-geeky girl because he's a Nice Guy (tm) and that's all a woman should want in life.
Overplayed stereotypes can still make for interesting TV if the writing or the premise is engaging enough. Not so with Chuck, a show that barely counts as SF, even though the bit where a single email can transfer every bit of information stored on a hard drive is speculative, to say the least. The rest of the show is action/adventure meets Beauty & the Geek. The results are predictable.
Reaper comes out a little bit ahead, though, even with its played out premise. It has the heart of a Kevin Smith View Askewniverse movie, so there's a healthy infusion of humor and a love for the slacker who makes good. The lead, Bret Harrison, reminds me of Ben Affleck (in a good way). Since Kevin Smith is involved with the show, this can only be a good thing. I'm also quite into Ray Wise's depiction of the Devil. There's no over-the-top evil and no hint of heavy-handed morality. Again, we're not treading into unfamiliar territory with any of these characters, but at least the Devil livens things up when he's on the screen.
The main problem with Reaper is that it has a tendency to be tedious. The writers only have about 20 minutes' worth of material for each idea and 40 minutes to fill. It may improve over the season, but I just don't care enough to find out.
Lastly, there's NBC's reinvention of the Bionic Woman. A lot of people were excited about this show and the network went into overtime hyping it as a major contender in the "women who kick butt" genre. I haven't decided whether I like or dislike it. The show is flawed, deeply, but there are glimmers of a better future.
The premise is similar to the 70s original—Jaime Sommers (Michelle Ryan) suffers a tragic accident and a powerful secret organization replaces her legs and right arm with bionic prosthetics as well as enhancing her hearing and eyesight. There are several key differences in the new show. The first being that Jaime's boyfriend is not himself bionic, he just works for the secret organization. But Jaime isn't the first person to receive these implants. Sarah Corvus, the "first bionic woman", received the implants several years earlier and then went crazy. Like the original, Jaime did not consent to having these modifications made to her body. In the present incarnation, she definitely doesn’t take the whole thing very well.
This show should have been a winner. Bionic Woman's creator, David Eick, is one of the Battlestar Galactica producers. The cast is strong and the concept, though not original, has a lot of potential. Unfortunately, the writers piss a lot of that potential away.
There was plenty of drama to be had between Jaime and her boyfriend Will. There's the part where he made her bionic without even asking, or the part where their unborn child died in the accident, or the fact that he led a whole life she didn't know about. But, in a stunning continuity drop between the pilot and the second episode, Will is suddenly dead and, hey, we can forget all those possibilities in favor of whining about how Jaime didn't get to go to college.
The secret organization and its mostly male managers want to use Jaime as a sort of bionic enforcer, sending her into dangerous situations to protect their own interests. This all happens too easily, in my opinion. There's no real struggle in Jaime's decision to acquiesce to the organization's desires. But then each time she's sent out to do something she disobeys orders or messes up in some other way, mostly making things worse in the process. It seems like the writers want Jaime to be defiant and independent, a goal which would have been achieved much easier if they'd had her struggling to stay out of the organization all together.
And then there's Sarah Corvus. Played by Galactica's very talented Katee Sackhoff, she is, by far, the best character on the show. Whenever she and Jaime are on screen together, everything clicks. Michelle Ryan is a very talented actress as well, so I attribute the lack of spark in other scenes to the writers. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there must be one writer responsible for the scenes with Jaime and Sarah and nothing else, because the show gets markedly better during those times.
It makes me wish that Sarah hadn't been so immediately placed into the "Bad Person/Can't Trust" category for Jaime. There was potential for a complicated mentor/mentee relationship, even with the inherent trust issues. And though I'm not a fan of sexual tension, a little between the two of them could have given their interactions more depth.
The producers and writers seem to make a lot of bad decisions regarding the female characters. It's as though they're trying for a Girl Power vibe without understanding anything about what makes for strong and interesting women. They just throw around buzz attributes—She's got a high IQ! She's loyal and trustworthy! She wants to do more with her life!—without allowing the character to actually convince us of that herself through her actions and choices.
What's worse is that Jaime doesn't have any agency of her own. And all of the people who have authority over her in the organization—her boss, her manager, her trainer—are male. The writers never miss a chance to show us that the men know what they're doing/talking about and Jaime doesn't. So when she shows an independent streak and fights against what they tell her to do, she is always wrong and ends up making things worse for herself and for the guys.
The show gives lip service to the basic ideals of feminism, but then smothers that in a laundry list of condescending tropes. Such as women like Jaime who don't feel they deserve men who are too good for them. Or who are caretakers above all else. Or who, despite being horrendously violated, really just want to be held by the person responsible. Or girls like Jaime's sister who are angry because that's what being a teenage girl is about! Or women like Sarah who can break a spine in two yet somehow still end up felled by men who use and leave them. Or who are punished for having Too Much Power, especially if they Like Sex Too Much.
In general, Bionic Woman isn't a particularly good addition to the "women who kick butt" genre. Since NBC sunk so much money into it, I'm sure the show will be on the air much longer than it deserves. Perhaps that will give the writing and overall attitude of the show time to improve. As long as Katee Sackhoff sticks around, I'll probably watch an episode when I'm bored. If she ever leaves, I'm going with her.
So of the seven new SF shows this season, I think Pushing Daisies is easily the best, followed by Journeyman. I won't give up on Bionic Woman just yet, mainly because I'd like to see it succeed. But it's a good thing there are several good shows returning this season, otherwise my DVR would be very lonely and empty.