Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Drawing A Crowd

Has it been a week already? I suppose I could have posted about Russell T Davies being an even bigger arsehole than usual, given his remarks at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, but it probably wouldn’t have helped my blood pressure, even with the regular doses of Ramipril and Amlodipine.

I had a meeting this afternoon with a woman who had been heavily pregnant when I’d seen her a couple of times back. Once we’d gone through and I was on the way out, I asked how the baby was. She took a framed photograph off the desk and proudly showed me her four-year-old son. Had it been that long?

It doesn’t seem like a year since CBS put their faith in Viva Laughlin, the Americanization of Peter Bowker’s musical drama Blackpool. Co-produced by BBC Worldwide and Sony Pictures Television, the network eagerly spunked $7m on the pilot, which even at that price managed to look remarkably cheap and nasty compared to the original, and then dug deep for a further 20 million clams to market the new show.

When Blackpool was broadcast on the BBC in 2004 the audience was instantly reminded of Dennis Potter, which can’t be a bad thing. When Viva Laughlin was broadcast on CBS, it most probably reminded audience members of Steven Bochco’s police drama Cop Rock, which is not exactly a good thing. Premiering to only 8.4 million viewers, Viva Laughlin lasted only a couple of episodes before CBS pulled the plug.

I’m not saying the fact that it got booted off the schedule was wrong. I watched the pilot and long before the end of the first act wanted to swallow my own tongue, right after I’d dunked it in hot chillies and then set it on fire. But I do wonder whether the show would have had the glimmer of a fighting chance if, rather that being thrown naked and alone into the early Fall Thursday night schedule, CBS had premiered Viva Laughlin a week later, in tandem with the return of the ratings-winning CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

This year the network wisely waited until Grissom and his team made a comeback, investigating the murder of one of their own, before slipping their new version of Eleventh Hour in afterwards. I suppose the network should be congratulated for not bringing the curtain down on further adaptations of English programmes, but then this is coming from Jerry Bruckheimer Television, which has a pretty good track record with CBS.

If rumours are to be believed, the network trumped ABC in a bidding war, stumping up close to $30 million for the rights, so obviously they have some faith in the show. I’m loathe to admit that I only have a fuzzy memory of the four episodes that first appeared on ITV with Patrick Stewart in the role of Dr Hood. That said, the premiere appeared to stick pretty closely to Stephen Gallagher’s original, using the same premise from his first episode.

Maybe if it wasn’t coming in the wake of Fringe, which covered the same territory but with a far more bonkers approach, Eleventh Hour might have seemed more than routine. It was certainly well made and Rufus Sewell gave an interesting performance in the lead role, but... it just lacked the special something that makes things really stand out from the herd. It certainly didn’t have the same kind of high concept as Life on Mars, which, by a quirk of programming, was scheduled directly opposite Eleventh Hour last Thursday night.

The original US pilot for Life on Mars has been floating around for a few months now and probably everyone who has caught it will probably admit it wasn’t very good. That’s probably surprising given that it was co-written by David E. Kelley and directed by Thomas Schlamme, but these things happen. One reason why it didn’t come together may have been because it seemed like a troupe of amateur travelling players had decided to stage their version of the original in a city that didn’t feel comfortable hosting the story.

The revised version, which had however many more millions thrown at it, relocated to New York and threw out all the existing cast save for Irish actor Jason O'Mara in the role of Sam Tyler. The first go around, he had appeared rather bland in the role but remarkably, acting opposite Gretchen Mol, Michael Imperioli, and Harvey Keitel replacing Colm Meaney in the role of Gene Hunt, O’Mara certainly upped his game. It also helped that the new pilot included Clarke Peters from The Wire, though unfortunately his character was from the present day prelude, and the great Mike Starr, who hopefully will be in a recurring role.

I had reservations that the reworked episode used the appearance of the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center as visual shorthand to show that Tyler was back in the past. As the episode progressed it soon became obvious that, purely from a production standpoint, redressing a block of New York to make it look like 1973 was far easier than anywhere in Los Angeles, which had been the first choice of location.

It also helped that they hadn’t stuck closely to the original narrative, which I still maintain was simply an excuse for Mathew Graham, Tony Jordan and Ashley Pharoah to write The Sweeney, thirty years too late, so much so that I’d actually be happy to watch further episodes. That certainly wasn’t an impulse the BBC version elicited back in 2006.

Of course how both shows fare depends on the viewers’ response to both shows’ second episodes. Like in the movies, aggressive blanket marketing campaigns can buy the first night audience. Both Life on Mars and Eleventh Hour managed to attract 11.6 million viewers, give or take. With US drama not exactly cutting it with the audience, and even the once lauded Heroes now down around the eight million mark, those kinds of numbers aren’t that bad.

Since networks want to hold their viewers’ attention for a whole evening, hoping they won’t fidget with the remote at any time, it isn’t simply about individual ratings figures anymore. While, on NBC, Life on Mars held on to 80% of the audience that had tuned in to watch Grey’s Anatomy an hour earlier, over on CBS Eleventh Hour lost over half of CSI’s 25.3 million viewers, which means that some polls will put it as the loser of the hour.

Whatever the future holds for both shows, the episodes were better than any drama I’ve seen on UK television these past seven days. Although since I’ve been steadily working my way through The West Wing DVDs, currently revisiting the second season, there hasn’t been much else I’ve watched.


At 12:46 pm, Blogger qrter said...

Bit of good news for you, perhaps - the second part of Battlestar Galactica's final season starts the 16th of January, which I believe is a lot earlier than previously expected.

At 12:48 pm, Blogger qrter said...

And a third season of Mad Men has been confirmed, which isn't very surprising after all the prizes.. (although there's a rumour that Matt Weiner might leave the show, which fills me with trepedation).

At 3:09 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Oh yes, 89 days and counting. Or, if you like, 2136 hours as of now. Frankly, I can't wait because I've found the new Fall programmes pretty disappointing on the whole.

While I said I'd be happy to watch more of the US Life on Mars, I got part way through the second episode and figured enough was enough. Interesting that after the first week, its ratings went down while the numbers for Eleventh Hour went up.

So the final ten of Battlestar Galactica can't come soon enough. That's great news about Mad Men as well, though I don't get why Weiner would want to go. Fingers crossed that it's just a rumour.

At 10:19 pm, Blogger qrter said...

Looks like it's more than a rumour, I'm afraid:

(going to try a bit of linking html, let's see if it implodes or not..)

Charles Clickens


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