Sep 27 2013
by E. Lee Zimmerman
(NOTE: There will be spoilers involving the premieres of The Blacklist and Hostages. You have been warned. Yes, you.)
Meh. Another fall season. Another new crop of underwhelming but stylistically bloated programs.
As I’ve aged (and regular readers will know I think myself ‘ancient’), I’ve grown to expect more out of television shows right out of the gate. Those pilots better be up-to-snuff ‘cause my time of the big blue marble winds down more and more with each passing year … erm … make that “each passing fall TV season.” So long as shows give me a reason to tune in one more week, I’m inclined to give them a fair shot; but the onus is on them, and with a billion channels to choose from my willingness to suspend disbelief from one-week-to-the-next is wearing thin.
For example, I had high hopes for FX’s summer program, The Bridge. It’s based on Swedish police procedural of the same name, and, while I haven’t seen the original, I’ve heard nothing but great things about it. (Fact: the Swedes do some pretty solid crime shows from what I’ve seen.) The Americanized version, however, has been downright vapid. From casting to plotting to filming, it feels entirely like it’s expected to be a critical darling without even having to try. There are more subplots than could fill a sorority’s fling, and none of them appear to actually be going anywhere. To my utter astonishment, FX recently renewed it for a second season, so they and others must see something of value in continuing the visual punishment. I’ll hang with it until the finale, but unless something truly inspired happens between now and then I’m done with it.
Another late summer addition was the welcome return of Hell On Wheels. The ‘oater’ (that’s Hollywood slang for ‘Western,’ you young Turks!) had an interesting first season followed by, I think, a second season that played out like what I’d imagine a cerebral hemorrhage would, which is to say it made little sense. I’ve already written about the fact that it received a surprise renewal from AMC – very late in the game – and, thankfully, this third season has been a return-to-form I don’t think anyone expected. Granted, there may not be as much “direction” behind the characters’ journeys, but the trend is strong. We’ll see if AMC keeps it around.
And, in the past, the Sons of Anarchy wouldn’t normally be the kind of show that interested me. So much reveling in lawlessness just never much interested in me, but the cast of characters has been pretty rich since the burst on the scene. While the show has had some high points and some low points under its belt, this season began with an event (I won’t spoil it for those still catching up) that even as of yet hasn’t quite felt what I’d call ‘organic’ to the overall plot. I’m still waiting for it to make sense, and maybe that’s my problem: tragedy never does make sense. Still, I’m hoping Jax and the boys have some honest surprises in store this year.
As for the newbies?
Well, I haven’t taken in all that much. Many programs advertised didn’t look all that interesting, but two of them – NBC’s The Blacklist and CBS’s Hostages – had received so much positive advance publicity I thought I’d give them a twirl.
The Blacklist stars TV regular James Spader as Raymond Reddington, a former US special agent who went rogue years ago. As the show opens, Red simply walks into FBI headquarters and turns himself in to authorities; he now claims to have information regarding an impending terrorist attack, and he’ll help thwart the event so long as the agency meets his only relevant demand: “I only speak with Elizabeth Keen.”
As it turns out, Keen is little more than a rookie; today is her first day on the job. As the necessary exposition tells us, she graduated at the top of her class as a criminal profiler … and therein lies my chief problem with so very much of the pilot episode: they ‘told’ us instead of ‘showed’ us.
There’s an old conceit about the writing process which informs writers about the best way to craft a story: show your reader this world you’re creating, don’t tell them what they need to know. Throughout this first hour, we’re unfortunately ‘told’ everything – we’re ‘told’ about Spader’s past, we’re ‘told’ about Keen’s qualifications, etc. – and there was very little ‘showing’ under way. As a consequence, I sat and listened as the plot moved forward through each and every expository point, so the action felt subordinate to the various characters’ speeches. Much of this is due to the financial constraints of producing television – they don’t have the budget to waste precious footage, but somehow there was enough in the budget to construct a ludicrous containment cell where the entire room moved when a simple opening of the door would’ve sufficed.
But, boy, that moving room sure looked nifty, didn’t it?
To be honest, I’ve never been that much of a Spader fan, and that isn’t because I have any estimation on his talent. Methinks he does what he does just fine. He’s got his own shtick down pat – I’ve always thought of him as an affordable Nicolas Cage – and I can see certain dramatic situations wherein his particular verbal dexterity works to the materials benefit. As for how well he can figure into the future success of THE BLACKLIST, it’s hard to tell based on the intelligence (or lack thereof) of the pilot’s writing; the sky’s wide open, so I’ll give it some time to see if it finds its legs. I don’t have high hopes for Ms. Boone; her take on the young wunderkind attractive female lead was way too generic for my tastes.
It would seem that CBS’s Hostages wasn’t as lucky as The Blacklist. The two shows were head-to-head in the line-up competing against one another; my guess is the CBS suits are probably kicking themselves for casting a forgettable Toni Collette as the would-be-heroine against scene-chewing James Spader as the may-be-hero. Also, what the overall story that Hostages may be telling doesn’t appear in the pilot to lend itself to a one-off viewing experience.
Collette plays renowned surgeon Dr. Ellen Sanders. She’s somehow landed the prime gig of operating on the President of the United States for what may or may not be a relatively routine surgery (the plot is a bit murky on that front). Since she’s the best in the world, methinks the Prez wants the best! (Makes sense.) However, on the eve of having to put the most powerful man in the free world under the knife, Sanders finds herself and her family held hostage by four assailants. What they want is simple: kill the President on the operating with a drug they’ll provide, and they’ll vanish from her life forever.
Stylistically, the idea harkens back to a pretty terrific Frank Sinatra film; 1954’s Suddenly takes place in the town of Suddenly, and it features some baddies hoping to assassinate the President who’ll be passing on a nearby train. (Yes, it’s a great flick, and I encourage you to check it out.) The chief difference here is that Hostages introduces the physician and her family and all of their emotional baggage – mom’s trying to juggle being a great surgeon and a doting wife and mother; dad seems to be a bit of a loser who smitten with another woman; their son is involved with drugs; and their daughter has her hooks into the local ‘bad boy’ who has apparently knocked her up. (And, yes, somehow all of these elements magically figure into the first hour.)
Unfortunately, the atmosphere is absolutely leaden. True, first hours can be notoriously tricky, but shouldn’t everyone at least give it a decent try? None of the principles seem to have any measure of chemistry with one another. In fact, one could argue that series regular Tate Donovan – he plays the good doctor’s philandering husband, Brian – is so detached that Donovan must think he’s reading from a different script. On a different network. In a different time zone. Either that, or something.
Like most, I’m willing to give a show some leeway when it comes to roping me in. I’ll hang with both of these newbies for a time to see if they go somewhere – go anywhere. And, in the meantime, I’m only counting the days until 24 returns to Fox as a limited summer series. I miss its tensions so.
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