Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mondays at 9pm, Lone Star vs The Event

Was happy to be reminded last Tuesday at the Paley Center how much I enjoyed FOX's Lone Star pilot going into Saturday's Comic-Con premiere of NBC's The Event pilot, two new dramas that are undoubtedly going to be hyped to high heaven by their respective networks and two dramas that, on concept alone, really pull at my internal TV viewer's dichotomy. One the one hand... a challenging character soap. On the other hand, a twisty, plot-driven conspiracy drama with genre underpinings.


That is what I screamed initially.

And then I saw both pilots. Okay, I read both pilots, too, so I knew what each was about beyond its logline, but it really is the viewing experience that solidified things in my mind.

Lone Star has me as a captive viewer. The Event still has to tell me what the hell it is (and I've seen the entire pilot!) before I make any decisions, but my gut reactions is "I do not trust this show."

Maybe I'm feeling burned from the Lost finale (not that The Event was ever anywhere close to Lost) that, despite what I've blogged here, has not improved with age. I stand by my opinion that the issues with the finale are due to problems in the entire final season and not the finale itself, but... it's all mixed together and fermented at bit.

Maybe I'm feeling burned by Heroes, which was also a far better pilot than The Event, and after burning out its plot through the first season and then refusing to introduce new interesting characters or make the old characters more interesting suffered abysmally.

The thing is... The Event does not have any interesting characters. None. I'm not saying that every character must break from archetypes or bend the rules in some special, unexpected way. I'm saying that The Event is populated by stock characters who we do not really get to know beyond their occupation or their love lives.

Someone will argue against me here and say "What about Laura Innes' character?" To which I will say "What do you really know about her?" That she was a captive at the secret Alaskan prison facility? Fine. That's what she is. WHO IS SHE? If anyone has seen the first section of the intoxicatingly fun 70-minute Phantom Menace review, you know what I'm saying.

Lost started off with pretty generic archetypes, didn't it? A heroic doctor, a drug addict musician, redneck ruffian, the non-English speaking Koreans, a father and son and their dog, an Iraqi war veteran, a pampered princess, etc. But guess what? At the end of that pilot, even in those incredibly odd circumstances, you knew how those characters reacted to things. How they might act in any given circumstance. Who they were... even if you didn't really know everything about them. Jack was always going to put the burden of leadership and saving others on himself. Kate was always going to be coy and adventure-prone, Charlie was always going to be scrappy, underestimated, and charming. And y'know the lesson from Lost? The show lost itself when it stopped being predominantly about character and started being predominantly about mythology. Everyone will pinpoint a different moment in time when that happened, but it did.

You don't know crap about anyone in The Event. And I find that to be a real issue considering that even at the end of the pilot, you still have no idea what "the event" is. Yeah, some weird shit happens. There's bound to curiosity about it. And I have little doubt that, despite the piddling lead-in that Chuck will be, The Event will premiere to very good ratings. And that'll probably continue for a few weeks. But it's unsustainable without character.

That's not the only problem I have with the series, but it's the major one. Beyond that, just looking at the pilot, we're given 4 point of view characters... all of whom are male. That's a problem. There's an overused flashback device that, one hopes, is in the pilot only and not in the rest of the series because, with 80% of the pilot a flashback to one time or another, the tension of the present is constantly cut when it needs to be sustained. Speaking of those flashbacks... they aren't cohesive enough. We get "11 days ago," "8 days ago," "7 days ago," "13 months ago." Sometimes not even bothering to check back in with the present as we slide to different points in time with nothing by a chyron to tell us when or where we are. It's disorienting and it's flawed because it means there isn't enough in the present to keep us interested.

Which is shocking because, on a pure plot level, the "present" is about a guy trying to hijack an airplane in Miami... because his soon-to-be-father-in-law is the pilot and is being coerced into crashing the plane into the President of the United States' Miami retreat, presumably to kill the President. And it all goes back to character. It may be cool in the moment, and it's certainly filmed and edited and scored well enough to put you on the edge of your seat (despite mostly the flacid flashbacks)... but it's flat. It's meaningless. It's manipulative in the worst sort of way because it doesn't give you anything but twists and turns that lead nowhere (at least in the pilot). I saw it described on Twitter as "all sizzle and no steak" and I think that's a completely apt analogy. But I suspect a lot of people, for a while, will be perfectly fine with sizzle. It should get a male-skewing audience, as these things are wont to do. I, myself, am committed to watch episode two to see if the show will be so bold as to, y'know, tell me what the hell the series is.

Lone Star is the complete opposite of The Event. In almost every conceivable way. First of all, it has a far bigger lead-in than The Event in House (though I suspect for the first week or two, the more superficially exciting and flashy show, The Event, will out-rate Lone Star). Lone Star's audience will likely be female-skewing. It's a soap opera, make no mistake. It's also rather slowly paced, though it certainly builds as the pilot goes on, trying to hook you far more on its emotion and its character than on its plotting.

And, on a character front, where The Event is all sizzle... Lone Star is steak. It is all about character or, more accurately, one character: Robert/Bob Allen, played by James Wolk.

Bob is an intriguing character, existing as the network version of someone who is not quite Don Draper (Mad Men), Walter White (Breaking Bad), or Bill Henrickson (Big Love) but has elements of all. He's a con man. He's married. And he has another life elsewhere in Texas where he has a girlfriend. And he claims to love both women and wants to go straight and have a real life (or, as it were, lives).

That's all you really need to know about him, isn't it? Knowing that he wants to go straight tells you what his actions will be, even if they are within the context of a con artist who is cheating on his wife (who started as one of his marks).

And the real kicker is that, by the end of the pilot, somehow, you fall in love with Bob as a viewer. It's very hard not to and the pilot is designed, music and all, to make sure that you so. You may think "there's no way I would!" I challenge you to watch the pilot. If, halfway through, at the end an interestingly edited hotel sequence where Bob is propositioned by a woman he met on a flight from one life to another, you aren't puddy in James Wolk's hands... well, by all means, this show is not for you. And I don't mean that in a bad way. This show is not for everyone. Again. Soap opera. Con artist. Extramarital affairs. I'm not going to berate you into loving the show or tell you that you're stupid if you don't (cough, Mad Men fanatics, cough). But it's definitely not like anything we've had the pleasure of seeing on network TV in some time.

Truly, that hotel sequence made my hair stand on end... both times I watched the pilot, even though at the Paley Center screening I knew it was coming and what was happening. That's that good writing, directing, acting, and editing. It's all you can ask for. Until you get to series and wonder if that kind of powerfully moving thing can be replicated on a weekly basis.

The truth is, there are flaws in Lone Star that, I hope, will be rectified in future episodes. As compelling a character as I found Bob, I need to know more about the women in his life, about Cat Thatcher (Adrienne Palicki) and Lindsay (Eloise Mumford). We don't spend a lot of time with them and I want to know what makes them tick beyond "Cat is the daughter of a wealthy oil magnate" and "Lindsay is a small town girl."

We get a bit more about the other characters surrounding Bob, mostly the characters in his life with Houston. Cat's father, Clint (Jon Voight), is a self-made man who puts family above all doesn't tolerate betrayal. It's implied he has his own brother (or perhaps brother-in-law?), "Uncle Roy," murdered. Cat's older brother, Tram (Mark Deklin), is an MBA, a consummate businessman, and sees Bob as a threat. Drew, Cat's younger brother, has a bit of a Don Quixote complex (at least that's how I read him) and is a ladies' man. I'd actually forgotten just how charming Bryce Johnson was in the role, and the Paley screening reminded me. In a show with a very serious, dramatic tone, Drew is a breath of fresh, comedic, enthusiastic air (his "Windfarm. Sweet." towards the end of the pilot is unfairly charming given that it's all of two words).

And then there's Bob's father, John, played by David Keith. A life-long con artist who brought his son along for the ride (and the getaway) all his life. It's the only life he knows, the only life he wants... and he wants his son with him. So when his son starts wavering and talking about "having something real," there are problems. Though I admit that I am a little sick of hearing the "It's a house of cards, son, you don't get to live in it" line in promos for the show that've aired during So You Think You Can Dance.

While, on a surface level, Lone Star is about a con man trying to go straight (even while cheating on his wife with another girl... so, yeah, there are still flaws and shades of gray in Bob), so it plays with redemption and aspirational themes... it's about family. Bob and his father, on the grift and on the run for 20+ years. Bob and the Thatchers. Bob and Lindsay and others in the town of Midland. Despite all the other trappings and their complexities, that's something easy to understand and easy to get into. And you know that everything that happens in the show is going to be generated by the characters. By what these people want, what their goals are. That's what we mean by "character-driven." There are those who have seen the pilot and been intrigued, then asked "okay, I like it, but how long can they keep it up?" Wouldn't it be fun to find out? Isn't that half the fun of watching shows like Breaking Bad, where we ask just how long the dance can keep going? Besides, even if Bob were to succeed in going straight and the "con artist" plot that runs through the pilot played out, he'd still have two love lives to balance. Anyway, I think it's a valid, but easily brushed aside, concern.

Is The Event about family, too? Yes. A lot of TV shows are about the odd families we make with those around us, be they Scooby gangs or CSI teams. But everything in The Event is driven by, well, "the event" that is mysterious and eludes us even in the pilot. It's all external. It's "plot-driven." Which isn't a bad thing, necessarily.

But it has an expiration date on being intriguing without character. Remember Flashforward. Big premiere. Quick decline.

My fingers are crossed for Lone Star's success, if for no other reason than it will encourage development of more daring (for broadcast networks) character pieces to go along with the eternal glut of crime procedurals.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

TV Thoughts Omnibus Post

Attempting to grab this afternoon to update here on the ol' blog with some scattered TV thoughts. So many things to talk about, so little time (apparently / lately).

I've wanted to comment on Breaking Bad for a while. I caught up on the third season just before the finale and was able to watch the finale along with the rest of America (or, at least, the small subsection that watches this show). What an outstanding show this series has become. Initially, for me it was a dark, disturbing hour of TV that primarily showcased Bryan Cranston and Vince Gilligan. Last season, Aaron Paul really came into his own as Jesse, and this season it was Anna Gunn (annoyingly overlooked by the Emmys in a year where, shockingly, the usually same old same old awards show did a ton of thing "right"). There really aren't enough words to describe how subversive Breaking Bad has become. I don't know how many seasons it has left in its run, but the progression of the first three has catapulted it to the upper echelon of TV dramas. Ever. It plays so expertly on audience expectations and on TV conventions. I suppose if I were to try and get a simple handle on why I love it so, it would be this: the hero wears a black hat. It's a wonderfully modern show with a slew of visual references to classic Westerns. And Walter White, our (extremely anti-)hero, wears a black hat. I just think it's sort of genius. Now if they could only figure out what to do with Walter Jr...

Speaking of the Emmys... it's hard to truly be mad about the exclusion of Community when so much of the old guard, especially in the comedy categories, departed and made way for the buzzier shiny new toys that are Glee and Modern Family. Still, a nomination for the "Modern Warfare" paintball episode was deserved. Community is the lesser watched show of the three new comedies. It took longer to find its groove than Modern Family did (which seemed to have its groove from the start), and was never the pop culture sensation that Glee is (my opinion on Glee, of course, is that it never found its groove in the back 9 episodes... solid music numbers and performances, but incredibly uneven storytelling that I really hope can get smoothed out next season). There will always be Emmy snubs (um... no Michelle Forbes for True Blood?!) but, hey, Kyle and Connie got their nominations, Entourage washed out, and there was plenty of new blood in the various major categories so tons to be happy about. Now we can only pray that when the awards come around, 30 Rock's streak comes to an end thanks to the deserving freshmen and Mad Men does not win for its subpar (by its own high standards) third season. Per the above Breaking Bad comments... just comparing those third seasons, it's quite clear which is the better show.

Summer TV abounds this year. I find myself watching an uncomfortable amount of reality television, while the scripted TV I'm watching is essentially a game of "what's on USA or HBO tonight?" Also Futurama (the two-episode premiere felt off to me, but the iPhone/Twitter parody with Mom was a return to form... I still feel like the sex joke quotient has been needlessly raised for cable TV while the pacing isn't what it was... waiting for an episode where the gang goes on a delivery and shenanigans ensue).

After slumbering its way through the first few episodes, the Real Housewives of New Jersey finally kicked things up this week with, perhaps, the most ridiculously entertaining hour of stupidity ever televised. The sequence with Jacqueline in her car playing games on her iPhone while Danielle's energist (this is a job?) tries to work with J? Awesome. So self-aware.

I enjoyed Tuesday night's premiere of Covert Affairs, though I have to say the sister felt entirely superfluous. Much as I loved Anne Dudek as Cutthroat Bitch on House... the role could've been excised. I found Christopher Gorham's blind CIA analyst (who manages to be something of a womanizer and an excellent asset) an interesting twist on a role that could've played as "typical spy fare" as some of the other roles. For instance, Piper Perabo's Annie Walker (am I the only one who sees a lot of Jennifer Garner in Piper?) I'm just not sure what makes the character special. Yet. But it was a breezy enough hour(-plus) to sit through that I'll keep recording it.

Top Chef is slowly improving after a truly lackluster first couple episodes. I've been over Kenny from the start, though. Anyone who talks about being the "Alpha male" presence just needs to be ignored. Waiting for anyone besides Kenny and Angelo to really make an impact, consistently, in the kitchen. We were spoiled last season with the Voltagglio Bros, Jen, and Kevin!

I am on the fence about the new So You Think You Can Dance format this season. I was initially on board with the idea of the All Stars, but the first week of performances (also the show's first week airing live performance shows rather than pre-taped and edited) was wonky. Glad the All Stars now stand by their partners during critiques, and very pleased that the show decided midway through to start pairing the contestants with each other again. Some of the judges' choices on who to drop baffled me (particularly losing Cristina - not the best ballroom specialist the show has ever had, but one of the better ballroom dancers when in other genres of dance - in lieu of Melinda) and the season because very gender unbalanced, resulting in the "landmark" male partnering that is now both necessary and commonplace on the show. I'm still scratching my head over why the show chose to fix something that wasn't really broken (the sixth season suffered for being too close on the heels of the fifth... not because of the format), but, hey, the judges are self-aggrandizing enough about it for everyone. As it did everyone who follows SYTYCD, the Alex Wong injury hit hard. Both for him as a dancer - we here at TY pray he recovers speedily and fully, it's a horrid injury - and for the show. As Nigel implied last night when predicting Kent as the season's victor... "now that Alex is gone" will forever be an asterisk on this season. And what can be said about Kent Boyd? Quite a casting find.

I've tweeted thoughts on many of this season's pilots. I intend to eventually post reviews. Eventually. And maybe just of shows I feel strongly about one way or the other (initially just the positives I think). A few intriguing new series, but overall an underwhelming crop for the fall, I'm afraid. I will definitely be adding Lone Star, No Ordinary Family, My Generation, and Nikita to my viewing schedule. I've yet to see The Event, and I didn't love the script but it made me want to know what happens next (possibly because I have no idea what actually happened in the pilot, as there are mysteries presented but no indication of explanations...) but I can see adding that. Not a strong season for comedy, though the further I get away from my screening of Running Wilde, the fonder I am of it. I don't think it was particularly gut-busting, but there's just something about Will Arnett and Keri Russell... I was also planning on watching Love Bites, but it's no longer on the fall schedule. We'll see what happens with it, but my fingers are crossed!

More to come, I'm sure, as True Blood ramps up, Comic Con happens next weekend (per my tweets, not really feeling con this year), and more...