Thursday, April 03, 2008

Fighting Women And Machines

Folk who blindly wave the flag for English drama amuse me when they take the stance that of course only the very best of the US dramas make it over to these shores. Their presumption, I assume, is that we only get to see the cream of their crap compared to homemade fare.

While that might have been the case when we only had three or even four channels, that line simply doesn’t wash anymore now there are far too many terrestrial, cable and satellite channels. Now, with every damn station hungrily scrabbling for content it means that not only do we now get the likes of Mad Men and The Wire and The Sopranos but the new Flash Gordon as well.

The thing of it is, I’ve never fought for country but for quality. All I care about is that a show is well made, intelligent and entertaining – which is actually a lot to ask for these days. On top of all that, of course, it all depends whether I have the time to watch.

Back in the 1990s, up to my neck in animation, I got into the habit of putting the first four or five episodes of a new drama on tape. Even if schedules allowed me to be home in time to watch, more often than not I was too damn dog-tired to give the show my full attention. So, once I got a spare weekend, I’d put my feet up and work my way through the tapes, seeing which new shows were worth sticking with.

Nowadays I still try to give new material the same due consideration. Maybe it doesn’t always work out when it comes to giving them as much time as I would have. It may just be that I can decide whether they appeal to me quicker now. Or I’m just less tolerant. Or other factors are involved.

I couldn’t stick with Damages beyond a couple of weeks simply because I found the characters to be generally unpleasant, and not in a good way, and didn’t want to spend any more time in their company. Two other shows I tried out and seriously found lacking were Bionic Woman and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Both might have looked good on paper – one the reinvention of a 70s “classic”, the other based on a successful film series – but brought to the television screen neither seemed to work. The main reason for turning off was that the pair was just so remarkably dour.

Sure, the fantastical subject matter was aimed at being all serious, but a spot of levity here and there wouldn’t have been amiss, right? Instead it was pretty much a continual diet of misery and angst, leaving everyone walking around with a face like a slapped arse.

A nuclear holocaust wiping out most of the population, followed by robot killers really sticking it to the survivors is more than enough to make anyone glum. But if the titular character is going to be such a total fucking misery guts before that even happens, I’m guessing most people would prefer to have a great day at the beach, enjoy a good meal, watch the sunset, then take a bullet and get it over with. Probably the reason I haven’t watched Terminator 2 for a long time is that, between all the slam-bang action sequences that television budgets can’t afford, Sarah Connor was such a goddamn killjoy.

I gave up on the fourth episode. By then it already seemed to have settled quite nicely into a formulaic rut. Their daily ‘to do’ list more or less comprised of: avoiding Terminators; let the good Terminator fight any killer robots they cross paths with; run away; try to discover who is developing Skynet; teach the stroppy kid to be a leader; stay one step ahead of the law; completely ignore there was a third film already.

What it boils down to is the mom’s a royal pain in the arse, the kid rebels because that’s what teenagers do – although getting himself locked in a bunker with a terminator is rather an extreme way of saying, “Gee mom, I hate you!” And Summer Glau goes around wearing clothes. So much is wrong with this picture.

Would it have worked as a relatively straightforward action adventure, albeit one still burdened with Sarah Connor’s lumpen survivalist pearls of wisdom? With only so many exoskeleton Terminators/dream sequence money shots the producers could squeeze out of the budget, what remained was a dysfunctional family bitching and moaning their way toward the end of civilisation. You can catch EastEnders for that.

Actually, in recent years the best drama about a dysfunctional family was JJ Abrams’ bonkers spy drama, Alias, and that was a regular hoot; at least in the early years before it went all to hell. Shorn of that kind of fun threaded amongst the intrigue, both Bionic Woman and The Sarah Connor Chronicles seem to revel in their misery.

Back in 1976, The Bionic Woman, the character could leap straight into action when the series premiered because, having originally appeared in The Six Million Dollar Man, she had already got through the shock of being smashed up in a skydiving accident and put back together again, and was raring to go. Rebuilt for the 21st century, it seemed to take the new Jamie Sommers a far longer time to get beyond her techno freakout mode and into action.

Even once she agreed to work for the Berkut Group, who had paid top dollar for her, too much time was spent training her up in between agonising over everything. Obviously the character is expected to go through a learning curve to be a super secret agent, but did it have to be so shallow?

When she was eventually sent out on missions, Sommers pretty much played second banana to the Berkut agents accompanying her. This is a woman who could now punch someone’s face clean off, and she’s still relegated to the role of a ride-along. Which just leaves her to deal with the bratty little sister and the general anxiety of modern living. What’s the point of that when you’re bionic? Get to the action!

In the 1970s crazy-concept genre dramas weren’t big on angst, they just got right on with the adventure. There wasn’t any problem, however insurmountable, that couldn’t be solved in forty-five hopelessly formulaic minutes. Hell, even in the pilot of the original Battlestar Galactica, after the wholesale destruction of the Twelve Colonies a trip to an alien nightclub for a little drinking, a little gambling, and a lot of loose women was pretty much all anyone needed to cure their ills back then. The only thing the Viper pilots looked pissed about was there weren’t any beaches to surf.

Worse for Jamie Sommers, the revamp introduced Sarah Corvus ahead of her. The first recipient of bionics, and totally bad to the byte, she was a shitload more interesting than the damp squib bartender. The girl-fight in the rain that topped off the pilot was a highlight the successive episodes simply failed to match.

Obviously I’m not alone because already NBC has dropped the former, while the fate of the latter is still to be decided by FOX. I’m betting they boot it out the door. Of course now that I’ve given up on it, the final clutch of episodes might turn out to be action-packed. Even so I’m pretty sure the two spare hours a week I’ve got back in my life could spend them more constructively - like sitting in a hard-backed chair and staring at the wall.


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