New Mind Games With Old DNA: Trust Abrams & Whedon

16 06 2009

How TV has watched is changing as I type this.  How people treat the role of manufactured entertainment in their lives is also shifting around, although perhaps not as much for those who weren’t geeks to begin with.  There’s less and less worth actually experiencing as a viewer, given the rationale for the spending of advertising money on the bits between the ads, if what you expect from those bits is entertainment that functions somewhat above the lowest common denominator, and which is aware that it is doing so.  Sometimes, however, what’s on screen looks like the same old rope for advertising money.  I contend that some shows are actually less old rope, and more a case of creators worrying away at those ideas of most interest to them, a case of refinement rather than recycling.

Those who continue to subscribe to the half-a-century old auteur theory seek single-minded meaning in what are, ultimately, collaborative pieces created with commerce as much in mind as art.  Practical realities often feed the more idiosyncratic elements of these pieces than creative will, although without doubt the former can inspire the latter, something that keeps some of us hooked on lower-budget and exploitation fare.  Television budgets soared with available advertising, but are now coming down, something that those of us old enough to remember a time when TV was the financially poorer but creatively richer cousin of cinema can but hope will lead to more interesting things to look at between the remaining adverts.

However, some creators put together and lead teams of creative collaborators in the specific endeavour of further mining territory first mapped out by themselves or others.  These talents are often treated as auteurs within television, and may well be, despite the teamwork – the buck has to stop somewhere after all.  The real question is: are they producing work worth watching, or are they indeed just selling old rope?

When The X-Files was launched on the then-fledgling US Fox Network , it was aired back-to-back with Jeffrey Boam & Carlton Cuse’s quirky western adventure series The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., a show famed for giving the legendary Bruce Campbell his first TV lead.  The “smart money” was on that show to succeed, and the second one was dismissed as a show not worth watching, as an attempt to bring back the unsuccessful Kolchak: The Night Stalker.  Rolling Stone Magazine in particular dismissed the Files as old rope, a few years before it would carry the stars & creator naked on the cover.  I only gave it a shot because Starlog Magazine did a series of interviews to tie in with the US summer re-runs, in which starDavid Duchovny, known to geeks then for already playing an oddball FBI agent in Twin Peaks, as well as a strange sort of investigator in cable soft-porn anthology series The Red Show Diaries, recommended episodes for fans to get to know the show.  With it airing on Sky here in Europe, I got someone to tape it for me, and I lost my heart immediately to the first episode I saw.  Back then, before nerds became the financial demographic known as geeks, this good-looking guy in the Fed suits revealed impeccable geek credentials time and again, thanks to the real nerds behind the scenes, the writers.  Fox Mulder is the first character I can remember seeing on TV that I was able to relate to as an adult, rather than aspire to.  The show retains its special place in my heart, despite where it went in the end.

Buffy would prove to be the same – it arrived with minimal fanfare given the movie it was spun off from, with only serious film nerds knowing who Joss Whedon was, knowing he was one of us too.  I remember watching it on BBC2 on Wednesday afternoons, amazed someone was getting away with what was effectively action-horror exploitation with an HK twist on TV, complete with hot young women.  Again, a first season that took recognisable things I was already into, blended them expertly, and then threw them up against the screen in the hopes it would survive – the things that endear a TV show to me. Boy, did it ever.

Finally, I have to mention ALIAS, if only because it seems to be either forgotten or unfairly maligned now that J.J. Abrams gets to play with bigger properties on the big screen.  Here in the UK, that show was aired on Monday nights on Sky, and at the time, television was in the doldrums for me.  There just wasn’t much on that I was hugely interested in.  Again, friends taped it for me, and again, first episode in, I was hooked.  I followed 24 all the way through from the beginning on BBC2 around the same time, and I felt the two of them were thrilling for old reasons, not new – 24’s 60s-style split-screen work, never as creative since as it was then under film director Stephen Hopkins, and ALIAS’ glossy update of 60s spy-fi, making a star out of Jennifer Garner, both brought back the cliff-hanger ending, something that those who grew up on classic Dr.Who will tremble and shiver in delight at the memory of.  I still think 24 season 1 is the best airport thriller never written, getting everything right about that format in the US TV one-hour drama format – never been as impressed since, although series 3 was good.  ALIAS, however, I was in for the long haul, until we hit series 4, and it seemed like the re-set button was hit one too many times.  Once more, as with the X-Files, the failure to mesh the creative elements with the practical production ones led to disappointment with this viewer, although there were still pleasures to be had.

Returning then to the now-ended 2008-9 US TV season, I am struck by the fact that the shows I have most enjoyed watching this year were, once again, the ones dismissed upon their debuts no more than old rope.  Again, they come from the minds of Whedon and Abrams, arguably the definitive industry geeks.  FRINGE, like Supernatual before it, is so much more than just an X-Files knock-off, a smart refinement of ideas played with occasionally in that series, but then mixed in with other TV DNA, including ALIAS, while Dollhouse is without a doubt Whedon’s most mature, complex and interesting show.  Both have terrific acting, smart, post-Battlestar Galactica plotting and bone-crunching, post-Bourne Trilogy action.  F/X work occasionally isn’t at the level of cinematic work, but almost routinely exceeds typical TV fare.  Dollhouse in particular has some weaker episodes at the beginning, relying too much on the apparent weekly mission format just like Buffy’s first season, but my interest was held, mostly due to a first-class acting ensemble consisting of top-class character actors like Olivia Williams, Reed Diamond, Fran Kranz and Harry Lennix; intense TV vets like BSG’s Tahmoh Penikett, Angel’s Amy Acker and lead Eliza Dushku; and unusually versatile newcomers Dichen Lachman, Enver Gjokaj and Miracle Laurie.  The series addresses concepts seen before in film (Nikita, Total Recall, The Manchurian Candidate), anime and manga (Elfen Lied, Gunslinger Girl), and SF literature (Joe Haldeman’s All My Sins Remembered, Karel Capek’s R.U.R., common tropes of cyberpunk), but with a high degree of consideration for the emotional and moral ramifications of all involved.  This is the forte of Whedon and his writing team, reuniting Mutant Enemy alumni Jane Espenson, Tim Minear, Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain with relative newcomers Tracy Bellomo, Maurissa Tancharoen, Andrew Chambliss and Jed Whedon.  They set up a world and populated it with people I find fascinating, even the ones I don’t like, and took them on journeys that revealed more of themselves not just to us, but to themselves and each other.  I am looking forward to going on more with them, and look forward to where they all go next season.

FRINGE, on the other hand, I simply cannot WAIT for next season!  In typical Bad Robot fashion, the cliffhanger left everything unresolved and no sense of where the show will go next except possibly into territory that The X-Files never dared – a war between opposing sides played out over the course of the show.  From a classic Abrams/Orci/Kurtzman set-up – ordinary FBI agent finds herself entangled in a large-scale bio-terrorism conspiracy based in fringe science that becomes more complex the further she investigates – the show has evolved its own mythology, as did ALIAS and LOST before it, again populated by interesting characters being led down the darkened alleyways of their own lives and the pasts of others.  While I hope the show sustains itself in the manner of LOST rather than ALIAS, it definitely excites and entertains the way ALIAS did, with an equally intriguing new female lead in Aussie Anna Torv, great East Coast location work, an unusual family dynamic in Joshua Jackson and John Noble‘s Bishops, several steals from Ken Russell’s Altered States including former Molly Dodd Blair Brown, and some of the best horror moments on TV since the X-Files’ heyday, Supernatural not withstanding.  All in all, the show grew rapidly into my top-of-the week must-watch item, and the enforced breaks in December and March only reinforced that status.  I will be buying the extras-packed blu-ray for certain, and watching the season 2 opener as soon as I possibly can; Dollhouse second on both counts.

If I had not given either of these shows a chance beyond their initial pilots, then I would have really missed out this season on those things I enjoy the most in the one-hour drama format.  Old rope is often just that – but sometimes, one is being sold a deeper exploration of known themes, just as in auteur theory.  We need to remember how to give shows a chance – if they deliver everything in the pilot, then there’s not many placces to go after that.  Television drama used to require a certain amount of commitment from its audience, and while the US heyday of the serial-drama-as-novel has passed with the ending of The Wire, Battlestar Galactica and the coming end of LOST, the lessons learnt from those shows have filtered through to the more traditional format, allowing for the best pleasures of both styles to be had.  Enjoy it while this sort of TV drama can still afford to be made.

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