Saturday, November 28, 2009

Don't Make It Difficult

I wasn’t particularly surprised to have read on the Variety website that ABC had shut down production of FlashForward for a fortnight to “boost the writing”. Having given up on the show after six episodes and seeing no reason to go back, occasionally I’d skim through Anna Pickard’s regular reviews on The Guardian’s TV & radio blog. This week she very astutely summed up the show with:

The trouble is that it just feels sometimes like an exercise for a Hollywood screen writing class. It’s like a bunch of writers were given the homework assignment: “Take the concept of FlashForward and rewrite it in a different genre every episode.” One week it’s FlashForward the action movie. Next week an experiment in murder mystery, or police procedural, or hospital soap opera. Occasionally they even seem to consider taking the concept and making decent science fiction of it. But not this week. This week it was Flashforward as romantic drama. This isn't a massive problem – but it just makes for something quite inconsistent in tone, don't you find?

While the ratings have begun to slide over here FlashForward still remains Five’s top–rated show. In the US the drama has lost over a third of its viewers, which means all the poor writers have probably had to cancel all their Turkey Day plans for this year to help get everything back on track. If they can turn it around that would be great because I still think it had a cracking pilot and a whole lot of potential even if it did inexplicably lost its way soon after. If FlashForward picks up maybe it’ll be worth giving it a second chance somewhere down the line. In its stead, rather remarkably, I’ve been giving Dollhouse another shot.

There was a drama where I’d struggled to even get through the pilot and then gave up when the second episode featured the well–worn idea of the wealthy outdoorsman eager to hunt human prey. Although everyone was soon advised to hold out for the sixth episode when the show would get a whole lot better, even dutifully coming back after weeks away it felt like too little too late. Whatever fine–tuning had been made, Dollhouse still reminded me too much of Joe 90. With Eliza Dushku appearing even more wooden than the Joe McClaine marionette, the bloom was definitely off the rose and I packed it in.

That should have been the end of it, but as my interest in FlashForward started to wane the UK’s Sci–Fi channel rather kindly dropped the second season of Dollhouse into their schedule and then hot on their heels ITV4, having obtained the terrestrial rights, started broadcasting the first year episodes. Watching the two seasons virtually back–to–back, comparing the faltering start brought on by network interference to what now appears to be a full blown Viking funeral, seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up.

My renewed interest came from having got to see the original pilot, which had been added on the first season’s DVD release, before the show kicked off on both channels. It goes without saying that it was vastly superior to the episode that replaced it, although having already been exposed to the concept it was difficult to know exactly what my reaction would have been to seeing it cold. I’m sure it would have left me intrigued and eager to see more, which I suppose is the point. That wasn’t the feeling I got from watching Dushku put on a pair of glasses and unconvincingly play an experienced hostage negotiator for most of the televised pilot.

The opening first season episodes aren’t especially brilliant simply because concentrating on Echo’s new persona/mission of the week and trying to work out exactly where it’s all going to go horribly pear–shaped isn’t that exciting. Although not bothering to watch the pilot (or the psychotic outdoorsman episode) again, and then getting it mixed up with the unaired pilot enlivened my viewing experience. Until it became clear that material from that unaired pilot had been apportioned amongst the next round of stories, I’d been sitting in front the television wondering why characters were having the same conversations again and again or why the FBI guy rather carelessly kept getting himself shot.

Watching them in tandem with the handful of second season episodes that were broadcast before Dollhouse was put on hold, it became pretty obvious that the concept was, at heart, far darker than the network wanted. The fact that the show got renewed always felt like a stay of execution rather than a reprieve. With Joss Whedon and his cohorts now being left to their own devices as the clock ticks down, Dollhouse has cast aside Eliza Dushku playing around in the dressing–up box, become more of an ensemble drama and dived head first into some wonderfully macabre territory.

Without the sideshow of the routine action adventure, Dollhouse has revealed itself to be a seething quagmire of moral ambiguities and ethical dilemmas. From the get–go there was always something dodgy about people signing their lives away to join the pool of “actives”, gentle hints that what they were doing wasn’t quite right. But in the last episode shown on Sci–Fi it was revealed that the Sierra doll wasn’t a volunteer, having been given the initial mind wipe against her will. To make for even more uncomfortable viewing it all culminated in the smary young scientist finding himself out in the world, away from his BIG RAT, and having to saw up the body of an unhinged client in a bathtub.

So many arguments have raged over where Dollhouse went wrong. Some said that Whedon shouldn’t have cast Dushku as the lead because she lacks the acting chops, or that he shouldn’t have got back into bed with the company that shafted him over Firefly. I’d suggest he shouldn’t have gone anywhere near network television with this subject matter but rather opted for a cable channel like AMC, FX or even Showtime.

Of course such channels may not have been able to stump up the budget required for all that nice polished wood panelling so vital to the Dollhouse set, which is obviously a big drawback. But if they signed up for a drama examining what can happen to people robbed of their basic human rights that’s what they would no doubt expect to get, rather than decide it needed more of Dushku’s pout and pushed–up breasts.


At 8:38 am, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

OK, you talked me into it... I'd watched the original Dollhouse pilot and decided there and then that the show was a dog's breakfast, so I never even got as far as the second hour.

Such was my goodwill for the Whedon brand that I went back and took another shot at the much-discussed 'game changing' sixth episode, and left it pretty sure that the patient wasn't worth saving.

But I'd so wanted it to be good. So tonight I watched the unaired pilot, and apart from a couple of over-talky 'why we do this' scenes, I was completely gripped. I couldn't believe it was the same show that I'd sampled and found so wanting. It was slick, integrated, and narratively absorbing.

The biggest drawback to the series lay in not caring about temporary characters and their passing dilemmas. The unaired pilot made it clear that these were never meant to be the point of the show. And the FBI guy from Battlestar Galactica was integral from the start, instead of wandering in late like an afterthought.

So what do I do now? Jump straight to season two, maybe? Or just mourn for the rather promising show we never got to see?

At 5:50 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


Glad you got to see it. The difference really is utterly astonishing and I wish I could have watched the rest of the episodes and listened to the few commentaries there and then.

During the writing and production of those early, compromised episodes there must have been occasions where poor Joss Whedon locked himself in his office and just screamed, especially since they appeared to be a big step backwards when compared to his previous work.

It could be that the second season episodes are pushing the extremes because, when the executive at Fox made assurances that all thirteen episodes will be screened, they must have known the party was over. Hopefully over here Sci–Fi will start showing the remaining episodes as soon as they return to Fox’s Friday evening schedule.

Maybe the thing to do is jump into season two when it resurfaces and mourn its short life. It’s the very least Dollhouse deserves.

As I’m currently watching Eleventh Hour on Virgin 1, and enjoying the fact that it treats science sensibly, rather than creating it’s own nonsensical “science” for cheap thrills, it’s obvious that Whedon wasn’t the only one to be royally screwed last year.

At 3:55 am, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

For once I have a geographical advantage - the US streaming site Hulu is carrying the show, and the first episode of the second season has a few more days online before it expires. There's also an 11-minute recap of the first season. I'll watch that and try to cobble together some mental continuity from the unaired pilot to the better episodes.

Glad you're enjoying 11thH. I'm awaiting delivery of season one of THE SHIELD -- missed jumping aboard the first time around, but I keep hearing so many good things about it that it's time I caught up.

At 3:08 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

When the second season pitched up here I skimmed a few reviews of the previous year to try and get an idea of how it got to where it was now, so had a vague idea without too many details. There’s one character that’s now gone and I haven’t a clue what happened to them, and another that turned out to be something different altogether, so I suspect the 11–minute recap might tell you more than I already know – that’s as long as they don’t rattle along like those hilarious Battlestar Galactica recaps.

If I remember rightly the first episode of the second season is more about getting the characters into place and setting everything up for what’s to come. Then it starts getting progressively darker. The (first season) episode on ITV4 last night had Echo infiltrate a religious cult so that at the end they could make a big point of comparing the mind–wiped “actives” to the cult members. It was a little on the nose to say the least and they must have argued that the audience was intelligent enough to get it without being so obvious. But then I suppose what the network wants, the network gets.

And talking of a seething quagmire of moral ambiguities and ethical dilemmas, The Shield is just the business. I hope you enjoy it. One of the great things about getting it on DVD now is there isn’t going to be a Blu–ray release. Since it was shot on 16mm stock, Sony has said this is the best it’s going to get so there’s no need for a high–definition upgrade down the line.

If you have time for them the accompanying commentaries are great. On the pilot’s chat track it’s interesting hearing Shawn Ryan and director Clark Johnson discuss how many days would have been added to the shooting schedule if they had opted to film outside of LA. I think the options they were given were San Diego and Vancouver.

Eleventh Hour is cracking. Long before Alamagora people must have realized that one day all the breakthroughs in science were going to come back and take a big wet bite out of us. Basing the dangers on factual advances rather than TV’s billy–bullshit science might not be as spectacular but it’s far more disturbing.

I was watching the director’s cut of Dark City over the weekend and had forgotten just how wonderfully unsettling Rufus Sewell could be. I suppose I’d only seen him in the BBC adaptations of Middlemarch and The Woodlanders before now. I suppose it comes down to taste and the fact that a lot of the audience doesn’t want to go to bed feeling the slightest bit ill at ease, but I don’t get how CBS dumped this and kept The Mentalist.


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