Saturday, October 24, 2009

Forward Pass

A long time back, when I was working like a dog to make sure that breakfast cereal commercials and their ilk looked tip–top, it was a bitch to watch any new American television drama that pitched up in the schedules. With every job deadline–driven, and sometimes overlapping schedules meant multiple projects on the go in various stages of production, most days I had no idea what time I’d be able to power all the computers down and push off home.

The problem wasn’t that I expected to miss a particular show while I was stuck in the studio catering to the whims of a couple animation directors who confused art with commerce and whose demands went far and above what the client was happy with. So even if I had got back in time, and even managed to throw a few things into a pot on the stove rather than picking up some take–out on the way back from the station, it was doubtful I’d be able to sit and relax and thereby give the show my undivided attention.

Eventually I bought a stack of blank tapes, labelled them for each individual programme, and left it in the hands of the VCR. Set on long play format, thereby getting the first half dozen episodes on each tape, when a free weekend came my way I’d and sit down and work through them. It may have seemed like a lot of fuss and bother but in previous years there had been instances where I was either too tired or distracted to appreciate a particular series pilot, not bothered catching the following episodes, only to come back later in the run and realize I’d been missing something quite special.

Nowadays, with iPlayer, 4 on Demand, Demand Five (even with it’s irritating buffering issues), on top of DVRs, and in some instances multiple repeats throughout the week to help pad out the schedules, it’s pretty hard to miss a show unless you really make an effort. But instead of those four terrestrial channels and satellite television, which was just beginning to get a foothold back then, now there are just too many damn channels showing too many damn dramas and comedies and documentaries and whatever the hell else, all of which are vying for your attention.

Whereas most of those older US shows would be dropped into the schedules throughout the year so that there would be an hour or two of decent drama amongst the usual dross, now a good majority of imported programmes appear in the UK pretty much as soon as the end credits are rolling on their home network. In a way that’s understandable. Channels that have no doubt paid over the odds to see off their competitors for the first-run rights now have the double jeopardy of getting the product out to the viewers before they can find their own way of watching the programme through means fair or foul.

With that window of opportunity shrinking all the time, without a delay in transmission, there’s no way of knowing ahead of time whether a new drama will take off of be ditched early on, especially when its fate depends, in large part, on the whims of American audiences. Towards the end of 2003, Sky One sent out a press release trumpeting their acquisition of five new dramas that would be transmitted in January of the following year and form “the cornerstone of Sky One’s primetime winter schedule.”

Unfortunately, that quintet consisted of the then-titled Tarzan and Jane, Nip/Tuck, Fearless, Skin and an “Untitled Jerry Bruckheimer–Meredith Stiehm Project” (which would eventually reach the screen as Cold Case). Before November was out, the WB’s Tarzan was dead in the water, having lasted only eight episodes. Skin too was cancelled after eight episodes of which only three aired in the US, and Fearless, initially pushed back a year to iron out the kinks in the story, never even saw the light of day. Hopefully Sky got a refund.

To plug the sudden gaps in their schedule, Sky snapped up The Handler, starring Joe Pantoliano, and Jake 2.0. If those titles don’t sound at all familiar it’s because they didn’t fare much better either. So from five shows only two were a success. Not only did Nip/Tuck and Cold Case make it through their first year unscathed but both are still going six years on. Were they the best of the bunch? I’m sure there are people who would say otherwise, but that’s the way things turned out. As Artie would say, “Tough titee!”

So when a new drama pitches up, making a concerted effort to elbow out the competition, unless you’re a dedicated coach potato happy to watch any old cock, you have to ask yourself is not only, do I want to watch this but do I have the time to watch this? With that you have to juggle not just will it last but, more importantly, will it be worth it? After what seemed like weeks of annoying trails, BBC2 finally coughed up Defying Gravity on Wednesday, which, rather handily, already came with a resounding FAIL! stamped across it.

Having one of the stuffed–shirt Mission Control characters explain that this was the start of a six–year mission, visiting the planets in the solar system, sounded like remarkable optimism when the continuity announcer had already declared that it was only a 13–part series (thanks to an early cancellation). After struggling through the first couple of episodes, shown back–to–back, it was easy to see why. Inspired by the BBC docudrama Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets, which I vaguely remember as being unexpectedly dull, this definitely was the wrong stuff.

There is the danger that this sort of subject matter, playing space travel relatively straight without the gormless whiz–bang fantasy nonsense that younger audiences have been force–fed for most of their lives, will only attract a select portion of viewers. But to make it more accessible to a wider audience, did it really need to be made so fucking touchy–feely? Because the balance between plot and character was hopelessly out of whack, it was like watching a futuristic 90–minute commercial for feminine hygiene products.

Whereas there was some inkling at the beginning that it wasn’t simply a routine mission, no doubt meaning that somewhere out there is the solar system’s very own “smoke monster” that the crew would eventually have to confront, any intrigue was drowned out by the bloody useless women and their “issues”. If there were any vital plot points I undoubtedly missed them because I was sat wondering how awful the candidates that washed out must have been for these yahoos to get a spot on the spaceship.

If it was bad enough that the producers decided to concentrate to putting the characters between the sheets rather than out amongst the stars, worse was how Defying Gravity dealt with the science part. Years back when ER decided to treat its audience with some intelligence, rather than have the professionals explain the procedures they were performing viewers simply had to pay attention and try to keep up. Instead of taking that approach, the writers decided it was best to spell every goddamned thing out.

To get the information across they hit upon the notion of having the astronauts record their experiences onboard the ship, whereupon I can only assume the video was beamed directly to an audience of retarded children. As for that irritating woman with the camera, who I think might have been a fucking God–botherer, how come nobody amongst the rest of the crew didn’t drag her kicking and screaming to the nearest airlock and boot her out?

Maybe it gets better. Frankly, I doubt it. But watching Defying Gravity, like Stargate Universe a couple of weeks back, highlights one simple fact. With so much competition being splashed onto the TV screens there simply isn’t the time to give every show a chance if it doesn’t quite manage to sell itself in those first forty–odd minutes. If it doesn’t immediately click with the viewer, that can only lead to an instant dismissal.

That said, if a new drama does introduce an interesting premise in a compelling pilot, how many more weeks should you give it if the following episodes don’t match up to that opening? Obviously I’m talking about FlashForward, which has been slapped across Five’s schedule for the past month. Four episodes in, I’ve become more irritated than intrigued, and what makes it worse is that I can’t quite put my finger on why it simply isn’t working for me yet.

Even though the producers have confirmed the is story mapped out, and with the network giving it a full season commitment at least we’re going to see it through to the end of what will no doubt be the setup for the next year, but so far the combination of plot and character development in each episode seems to be a little bit off. So far every inch of forward momentum has been steamrollered by either repeated flashbacks to the FBI’s big board or weeping and rending of garments at the hospital.

Certainly it’s necessary to have a division between characters happy to embrace the future they saw for themselves and those who got a sharp poke with the shit end of the stick and are eager to change their destiny. Otherwise the people might as well just shrug off the event and getting on with their lot in life. But in drawing that particular line in the sand too much time seems to be wasted. And how come there’s been no mention that since Joseph Fiennes’ character is merrily necking back the contents of his hip flask at the time of his flash forward he’s close to being an unreliable narrator?

If we have to compare it to Lost, because it appears that’s what ABC desperately wants us to do, that drama set up the predicament the 48 survivors of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 found themselves in by demonstrating there was more to the island than meets the eye, then, after the two-part pilot, started to establish the key players. By the fourth hour we had the beginnings of John Locke’s backstory, with a final reveal that became one of the signature moments of the show’s first season.

FlashForward may have ended its fourth episode with a reveal that frankly wasn’t all that surprising but to get there we had to endure a whole chunk of story that revolved around the calm guy on the bus. Maybe he’ll come back and play an integral part of the narrative further on down the line, but at this point he was simply a happy–go–lucky cipher put in place to convince the FBI guy’s wife that the future is written.

The problem there is if I wanted hackneyed relationship Sturm und Drang in a hospital I’d get a vagina and go watch Grey’s Anatomy instead. Also, why are all these incidental characters being pushed to the fore when I don’t know enough about the leads? I still don’t even know their names for Chrissakes! So far I’m labelling them FBI guy and his surgeon wife, their daughter and wigged–out babysitter, dead FBI partner walking, FBI chief and the soon to be pregnant FBI woman, alcoholic telephone repair guy, suicidal intern, bad Jack Davenport and his autistic son, and a still criminally underused Barry Shabaka Henley. So far I’m blaming that on the show rather than the onset of senility.

It may be that with such a large canvas the producers aren’t making the wisest choices in deciding which area to concentrate on. Or maybe by treating the show itself like a mosaic we’re just going to be thrown a collection of diverse elements that don’t form a coherent whole until the very end. But at the moment FlashForward certainly looks like the kind of show that in the past needed the first six episodes recorded and viewed altogether before deciding whether it was worth carrying on with. Or maybe I should simply quit now and wait for the inevitable DVD box set.


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