Let’s talk about MyNetworkTV. The idea is so overdue that it almost seems quaint; thirteen-week stripped serials that tell arced dramatic stories, and then are over, poof, and another one starts up.
Because of the “gap” left by the merger of UPN and the WB into the CW, lots of local affiliates all of a sudden had hours without programming, and a whole network was left with empty prime time. So now, from 8 to 10 (Pacific, I don’t know how many feeds there are) we’re getting Desire and The Fashion House, based on classic telenovelas that have enthralled millions of our neighbors down south. These are full American remakes, of course, drawing talent like Bo Derek, Morgan Fairchild, and Tippi Hedrin (Tippi Hedrin, people!) in Fashion House, which, according to its website, “delves deep into the glamorous, yet unscrupulous, world of the fashion industry and how greed, lust and blind ambition make or break careers, and hearts, in the business.” Desire, a serial about mobstery restaraunteur brothers, stars Sofia Milos, near and dear to us from CSI: Miami’s many adventures.
Every weekday for thirteen weeks we’ll get another episode of the unfolding mystery, and as a bonus, the ADD-ridden among us will get special “catch-up” episodes on the weekends, where the week’s events are condensed into an easy-to-swallow hour. And then! When the story’s over, the shows go away. And whole new shows start, with whole new stories. Revolutionary!
The shift from the rigid network format (half-hour or hour, twenty-two week episodic structure that builds its story in time for sweeps and hiatuses) to a story-based one is the natural evolution of the medium. With DVD boxed sets and bittorrent downloads, we’re eating TV series by the season, not the month. Me, I’ve only watched “24” on DVD. I just wait till the season’s over and go to Amoeba so I can consume Jack Bauer’s entire day in one go, and I have been known to do just that — though, unlike Jack, I pause to eat and pee and get from place to place, so it usually takes me longer than twenty-four hours to get through a season.
And let’s all look at Doctor Who, the classic version, for a change: here’s a show that’s been producing story-based arcs for something like twenty-six seasons. And the BBC still remains a rich proving ground for short-form serials; six-episode, thirteen-episode, three-episode stories come and go, year in and out.
Now, we’ve had our share of excellent miniseries, don’t get me wrong, and from Roots to Band of Brothers to that one where William H. Macy had really big ears, I love me a good miniseries. I sat through Taken! I mean, mostly for Matt Frewer and Dakota Fanning, but still. Ten hours! I love a story that takes ten hours!
MyNetworkTV has all the hallmarks of failure, from a cheap-ass logo to programming that looks like it was shot on a sound stage behind the Border Patrol station in Tijuana, but it’s got nothing to lose, and it can afford to be shameless, and that just might propel it to that weird sort of hypnotic success. Soap operas run for twenty seasons, not because they retain viewership from start to finish but because everyone dips in, once in a while, enjoys a season or two of Luke and Laura and then goes back to college or whatever and leaves the series for the next generation to enjoy. This leads me to believe that we will eat this kind of storytelling up.
June 4, 2006, reposted.
Dear Mr. Tennant,
I’m writing from Hollywood, California, because your star’s rising so brightly I can see it from here, and it’s gorgeous, and it’s blinding, and I thought you should know what it looks like from 6000 miles. This is also a love letter.
From today I give you a year, maybe eighteen months till you’re a household name, top-billed, in the States as well as abroad. Here’s what’s gonna happen.
They’ll make you work out, you beautiful lanky stringbean, and you’ll get biceps and a chest and then they’ll make you do (more) shirtless scenes. Then you’re gonna cultivate an American accent. They’ll tell you to do it because more roles’ll open up for you. We’ll tell you to do it because we want to hear you sound like us, and you’ll do it because you got a bit of the cowboy in ya and a damned good ear. Take it for a test drive on Doctor Who this year, because in the age of BBC America you’ve got a bigger captive audience than Tom Baker ever had, and in a week you’ll end up on YouTube.
Next you get a breakthrough hit. Something with critical appeal on a low budget, this year’s Trainspotting. I bet the scripts are coming in already, and you’re with ICM, so you’ll pick the right one. Then it’s a question of do you want to do the mainstream summer American romantic comedy they send ya, or do you wait for the villain role in the smaller American thriller? And the girls join the gays, as they tend to, and next thing you’re beating out Brad Pitt in every poll there is. Glossy magazines that smell like perfume will call you things like “The Scottish Sensation” and the Desperate Housewives will start fantasizing about you. Quite possibly call you to offer you a six-episode arc.
I just met you this past year because I’m a geek and a fangirl and I watched Eccleston in Who, and, like everyone, thought I’d never get over him once he left. (If you’re playing the home game, you had me in three episodes. I marked the moment, it’s at the end of “School Reunion” when we get our very first giant Tennant grin, breaking around “my Sarah Jane!”)
Since then I’ve made a point of getting hold of screeners for Casanova, Blackpool, Secret Smile. I watched 2005’s Quatermass for you, and the internet provided old episodes of Taking over the Asylum where they noticed you first, all limbs and energy and that weird wisdom in your eyes. You like props and stage business. You like smiles that break from one corner of your mouth to the other, like a wave. You like to touch people. You like to pace, to sit down and get right back up again. You like to cross a room and then look back over your shoulder. You bite your upper lip and shoot a knowing look. Most white guys bite their lower lips, but you’ve redefined mouth business for a whole new generation, with that pop of your lower jaw and the way the tip of your tongue folds up against the roof of your mouth. I suspect some of that’s you, just as I suspect that even when you’re not performing your face tells a hell of a story.
So I did twelve years of Tennant in about two months, real time. I watched you grow up and blow up and explode on the screen as Casanova, as Carlisle, as the Doctor. This time you took the slower path, and I tripped through the pages of your book and fell for you as I watched you blow the roof off the place.
The reviews I’ve read describe your Doctor as quirky, electric, I’ve even heard “waspish,” but if you ask me (and boy how you didn’t) I think the key element you bring to the character’s what we saw in the very first five minutes we had him on screen — he’s a fellow who’s hop, hop, hopping for his life, in perpetual motion because if he ever stops, even for a second, he’ll be forced to come to terms with the weight of his 900 years and all his angst and guilt. And so you spin him across the screen with a sort of desperate mania, like the guy who hides his emotions behind humor or the guy who talks too fast because he doesn’t want to hear what you’re gonna say if he lets you interrupt. Actually, it’s kind of chilling. One gets the feeling that just beneath the surface, Tennant’s Doctor, for all his infinite adaptibility, is about one good guilt trip away from smiting the universe with his wrath for all of its injustices. Kind and passionate, yeah, but don’t ever mistake that for nice.
All this in sharp contrast to your Casanova, though on the surface they do share a sort of Peter Pannish irrepressibility, because you somehow managed to make Casanova — while entirely a rogue — the domestic sort. Here’s a man who, despite appearances, really does just want that perfect love affair, to run off with his heart’s desire and settle down for a life of domestic wedded bliss. And how you managed to do that while keeping him a self-centered cad is just another little indication of why I spent the last two months seeking out every credit of yours I could get my hands on. Casanova who wants nothing more than for his son to be proud of him, or nothing more than to play house with Henriette, and still manages to botch the whole thing up because he’s crippled by his own need for instant gratification and because he’s got that magpie-like attraction to the shiny and new and untried.
And then Carlisle’s a third sort entirely, probably the laziest character I’ve seen you play. And of course it’s not really laziness he’s got, but what you present as sort of a combination of complete worldly entitlement and a sort of boredom with everything around him. Your Carlisle slouches through his life completely convinced he’ll get whatever he’s got his eye on without much effort on his part. When other folks talk, he lets his mind wander. He lopes around with that air of bored confidence, but then, in a really phenomenal performance, you litter all that confidence with nervous behavior, the eye poking, the oral fixation. Like even Carlisle doesn’t know how insecure he really is. And it works for him, both the insecurity and the overconfidence; he gets his man, he gets the girl, he’s a corrupt antihero and we all root for him anyway.
In other words, you’ve impressed the socks off me. And that doesn’t mean anything, I mean, my opinion, as I’m not famous, or noteworthy, or an asshole, but I’m brighter than most and I’ve got discerning taste and I’m not even an Anglophile; I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Jewish New Yorker cum-Angeleno, and I think you are the greatest thing to come along since belly lox on a bagel. And not just because you’re a beautiful man, which you are, from the loud arch of your eyebrow to your toothy grin that can stop a girl’s heart, ka-thud, just like that. And not just because you’re a legitimate talent, a genuine actor’s actor, an alive, electric performer with a freakish ability to shift from beaming to broken or from charming to creepy with a curl of your lip. Because one bit of stage business isn’t enough for you, and they may call you spastic and jumpy but every single one of those movements is controlled, elegant. You slide into your roles like you were born in them, which, I suppose, in the Doctor’s case, you were. You make good decisions. You see the whole picture. And I’ve grown absolutely addicted to watching you do it, and falling just a little bit in love with you besides.
Not even just because you’re a Socialist, or you did 7:84 or can probably match me at West Wing trivia, or because you still believe in agitprop, though those are points in your favor. And I didn’t fall for you just because you’re six feet and can’t weigh more than a buck fifty but you move like a dancer and your head’s always square on your shoulders and you can’t teach that kind of confidence, that kind of posture, that’s just born, and either you got it or you don’t, and you’ve got it in spades.
But mostly I’m impressed from 6000 miles away, and I felt the need to write to you, because you’re taking this in stride, all of it, hop hop hopping for your life and making good choices and living in the present and building a career not by cutthroat ambition but by sheer talent, each role coming out of the next because we want you, and not the other way around. And you say now that you don’t have a five year plan, and I believe you, because I’ve read articles from ’04 where you mentioned trying to get your agent to put you up for a walk-on role on Who. But a year from now you’re going to belong to the world, The Next Big Scot, because the scripts are only going to come in faster after Christmas, after Recovery, after whatever’s next, and I’m gonna miss you.
Scotland’s known you forever, but we just got hold of you over here across the pond, and we’re proprietary! I love that this year you’re property of the geeks, the fanboys and fangirls and the Pink Paper gays, all of us who always jump on board just a little bit quicker than the rest of the world, all of us who know how to see magic in the mundane and who saw it in your amazing face. We’re a clever bunch, geeks and artists, and we usually find the cool stuff first.
We’re on the brink, you know? Doesn’t it feel like apocalypse weather? This big world and my country’s diabolical administration and the conflict that arises when a planet gets too small for its population? Good time for agitprop and a great time for geeks — we made the microphones and the internet and the podiums and now we’ve got ’em in our hot little hands. So what do we SAY? What do we DO? How do we use what we got to change the world for the better? Is it any wonder I fantasize about this year’s love in the form of a Socialist Scot with a talent that even The Man can’t keep down?
But that’s also why this is a love letter, because I’m aching for our lost year, because next time you’re in LA you’ll be bigger than Brad Pitt and rich as Croesus, and I’m never gonna get the chance to work with you, to use your energy and vast, sprawling talent to tell my stories. And we’ll never get that drink.
And it woulda been a good drink, David, it woulda been awesome.
Maybe I’m wrong, and you’ll stay staunchly where you are, the pride of Scotland and the Pink Paper heartthrob for five more series of Who, and then maybe after that you’ll team up with Russell Davies and write your own pilot, and star in that, and spend some more decades with the RSC and follow the path of other actorly British sorts, and you’ll crossover to the states when you’re seventy and playing Dumbledore in Harry Potter 21.
But either way, I hope you feel the potential, the excitement, the fire of your shooting star. Because from over here, it is absolutely incredible to watch, and I can’t look away.
The best of luck to you in everything you do. Come to LA and I’ll show you a good time.
I never watched SG1, even when all my Farscape fannish friends hopped over into SG and even when the artist formerly known as Maayan started writing fic. And EVEN when the artist formerly known as Maayan and I drove out to the desert just to lie down beneath this bowl of stars, and, over the course of eight or ten big-sky hours, M. told me the entire tale of Daniel Jackson, from Sha’uri and that, wossname, wise Ancient caretaker, to Daniel ascending and then getting the boot and coming back with big biceps to play with Ben Browder. And I’ve seen the movie and I’m comfortable with the rule that any new Stargate starts with a hot alien babe showing some scruffy antihero her, erm, cave paintings, but my fannishness about SG1 extends to how hot Jaye Davison was as Ra the sun god in the movie, and, pressed, I couldn’t pick a Goa’uld out of a lineup, despite the fact that I think Peter Stebbings played one once.
This is our first Star Trek free television year since 1987. And I’m not complaining, I can’t very well complain considering the preponderance of genre TV this year, but when a gal who grew up watching Picard seek out new lives and new civilizations needs a sci-fi fix, she needs a FIX, yo. And thus we have Stargate: Atlantis.
SGA is not a profound show, by any means, nor groundbreaking in any way, let’s just get that straight right off the bat. BSG is undoubtedly smarter and more elegant, more dangerous and unique. And BSG is a damned good show; we’ll get that out of the way straight off too, despite the fact that it’s really not very funny at all. But it’s not our space show, not any more than Threshold or Invasion or the new Dr. Who; it didn’t pick up the Star Trek spill. That, there, is for SGA.
So what SGA does for us is give us everything that was ever delicious about Star Trek (and Star-Trek-related space shows, see also Babylon 5) without any of the hamhanded morality or unwieldy world-building. Every season on every Star Trek has a handful of yummy plots (the bodyswap plot, the trapped-in-an-elevator plot, the killer bugs plot, the power-outage plot) that lend themselves to thoroughly, relentlessly enjoyable television, and then a handful of useless boring plots (the requisite Klingon episode, the requisite alien one-off love affair episode) that never really hold up upon the fortieth or fiftieth rewatch. And so SGA, cleverly, has saved us that trouble by ONLY recycling tried and true FUN space plots. Yes, every arc and every decision and every character or alien race on SGA has its ancestry among the Star Treks, but oh! how wonderful to see them strung together like this, like a greatest hits album recorded by ONLY the good characters, the clever, snarky, slashy characters, with the tongue-in-cheek humor that gets to come from being set in the present, as opposed to in a nebulous future where we don’t have money or racism anymore.
Every character on SGA also has his or her ancestry among the Star Treks, which is kind of a handy shorthand for us because it doesn’t matter if the characters themselves actually live up to their obligations because we BELIEVE they do, since we’ve grown up simmering in these paradigms. To wit — play the drinking game “What Does Weir Do?” sometime and see how sober you end up. Weir, darling Weir, has never once done ANYTHING, not a THING to demonstrate that she’s the ass-kicking chick leader we want her to be. BUT, I’m willing to BELIEVE she is, even if she doesn’t show me, because Janeway was, and that’s where her ancestry springs from. Here, observe a chart, where Star Trek: Voyager is (almost) arbitrarily selected from any of a set of space show paradigms:
Which brings me to why it doesn’t matter if McKay’s science is pseudoscience, because he’s been TAILORED as a genius, we BELIEVE he’s a genius, and so we can use that for our fannish pursuit of tasty slash. And it doesn’t matter if Sheppard’s got nothing but his pointy ears and his belt to set him apart from John Crichton or Tom Paris or anyone else who likes to take a little space ship for a joyride and come home cracking jokes about pop culture, because we BELIEVE he’s a kickass soldier and pilot and commander.
So those of us who wanted so badly to slash our space boys now get a better slash pairing than Paris/Kim (or Crichton/D’Argo!) ever offered us. Those of us who want hot girlslash can take Weir and Teyla to places Janeway and B’Elanna have absolutely gone before. Those of us who want smalltime bottle eps can hang out in Atlantis (which I always accidentally refer to as “the station” when I want “the city,” see also, DS9, B5) while those of us who want mytharc with gravitas have the Wraith a more serious and satisfying threat to Earth than the Borg or the Scarrans ever were. It’s like space shows for DUMMIES over here, with all the lines drawn for us, but FUCK ME the lines are good.
Which is to say: there is nothing unsatisfying about SGA. It is comfort food, it is a legacy, it is in the dictionary next to SPACE SHOW. Mm!
All of this leads me to suspect — and this is where my complete ignorance of SG1 could get me in trouble, so feel free to take this with a grain of
stupidity salt — that the creators of SGA were Trek fans themselves, and that they SEE the opportunity SGA has to be the neo-Trek for this generation. Which leads me to “Aurora.”
The Ancients, at least in Aurora, resemble Star Trek so much that I can’t imagine it’s unintentional. Which is partially upsetting, because I want the Ancients to be omnipotent, or at least paranormal, and Star Trek-ifying them makes them almost too underdeveloped for my taste, but let’s table that for now.
John shows up in the virtual environment only to get faced with a phaser and thrown in the brig behind a forcefield. He travels down brightly lit corridors that could be on Voyager, the Defiant, or the Enterprise, and faces off with the Captain in an all-white version of Picard’s bridge.
And perhaps we’re spoiled, those of us who marinated in space shows most of our lives, because we don’t see Star Trek’s universe as tremendously radical; we’ve seen it all before. But with SGA we get an opportunity to see the technology and civilization created by Star Trek in a new light, through the prism of folks who stepped right out of 2005 just like we do. And, like John Crichton faced with little yellow bolts of light, it IS pretty damned amazing what the Ancients came up with, what with transporters and force fields and phased-energy weapons and traveling faster than light. And considering they were defeated by the Wraith, or at least overwhelmed, it makes sense they shouldn’t totally outstrip the Borg, right? I mean, if the Wraith race of bee people was too tremendously advanced from the Borg race of bee people, we’d expect the Ancients to be similarly advanced, and unstoppable opponents don’t make good TV.
But, we can kill a Wraith with only moderately more difficulty than we can kill a Borg, and we are similiary outnumbered, out-hiveminded and out-expendable; the Borg don’t care if they lose a million drones if they take Earth in the process and neither do the Wraith. Which makes sense, and makes the Wraith, like the Borg, a compelling foe. If we could kill them too easily they’d be boring, but if it were impossible to kill them at all, they’d be unwieldy. And thus, we give them bug-minds and greater numbers and we let them rape and pillage the galaxy destroying worlds, while somehow being the only four people in the universe who can conceivably stand up to ’em.
Point being, SGA’s taking a whole team, a whole planet worth of people and doing to them what Farscape did to Crichton; plopping them in the middle of space technology WE (the audience) are not unaccustomed to, and watching the cast members flounder around learning as they go, dwarfed by this impossible futuristic tech and this battle of giants in the playground (watch as I mix my space show metaphors!). And thus, we get everything fun that Farscape did, along with everything fun that Star Trek did, along with everything fun that B5 ever did, stuck between order and chaos, between the Shadows and the Vorlons, between the Ancients and the Wraith, between the Federation and the Borg.
Caught another gasp of apparent downtime at work; this only happens on weekends, usually Sundays, slow news days, when the bosses are away and the campaigns are par for the course till Monday’s news cycle begins.
Let’s talk about TV!
I am all over this Lost-itis surge of genre-lite shows hitting mainstream network television. It’s positively a FEAST for those of us who hunger for genre television in the post-Star Trek world. I’m watching them all (except, oddly, Lost, which I lost control of somewhere mid last season when the flashbacks started to bore me. If they’re done with the backstory flashbacks I might tune in again; how’s this season?) except the one on the WB about the teen ghostbusters, but that’s more of a WB/teen-show bias than anything else, and I’d probably watch it if someone pointed me the way. Anyway, here’s the 2005 shows I’m watching this year. Add to it the old standards of Atlantis and Galactica (go SciFi!), Scrubs and House (go docs!), Survivor and The Amazing Race (go reality!) and this is my Fall ’05 lineup.
Bones: Apparently I’m the only one who’s liking this show. I think that’ll change. It turns out it’s PURE GENIUS, and that Emily Wossname is ADORABLE and she and David Boreanz promise to be the Mulder and Scully of the Oughts, except far more frank and shooting from the hip and FUNNY. I love the ensemble, love the marvelously clueless nerd (see also: every other show this year; viva los nerds!), and love the wry humor socially inept geniuses brought together for no other reason than they love a mystery. Sheer quality; this is the best new show this season. The writing crackles, the ensemble has genuine chemistry, the characters are new and different and the mysteries, so far, have been, you know, TV-solid.
Thumbnail: Bones is a brilliant yet completely socially inept forensic anthropologist who really really likes solving crimes; David Boreanz is a federal agent who could use the help of a good forensic doc, badda-bing, now they’re partners, and they have a crack team of nerds and hackers at their disposal.
Surface: Holy production values, Batman! If nothign else, this show watches like a Hollywood blockbuster, and with cliffhanger endings at the end of every episode, it’s a lot like watching a massive-length feature in the line of “Lake Placid” or “Deep Blue Sea” cut arbitrarily into forty-four minute chunks. So, you know, it’s exactly as enjoyable as “Deep Blue Sea” or “Anaconda” or anything else with scientists and seamonsters, and that Lake Bell is adorable (and about as believable a PhD as Denise Richards).
Thumbnail: There’s something big under the sea, some sort of super mammal that lays eggs, and one got beached, and the government found it, and meanwhile Lake Bell is a surfer-chick marine biologist single mom trying to solve the mystery of the undersea beast. Elsewhere, a kid in suburbia hatched one of the eggs and grew a teeny little amphibian that he named “Nimrod.” Elsewhere, a guy in an annoying marriage is obsessed with finding the sea monster that dragged his best friend away.
Threshold: I don’t care what you say, there is nothigng that will make me stop watching a show where Brent Spiner and a midget protect us from invading aliens. This is probably a dumb show, but I don’t care much, because, like Surface, it has its roots in adventure/pseudo-genre films like “Sphere” and apocalypse films like “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Independence Day,” thus makign it a classic textbook what-to-do-when-the-aliens-come series. Carla Guigino is a good tough lead, but the high points of this show are unquestionably Brent Spiner as the neo-60’s hippie doc, and the midget lingust mathematician. MIDGET LINGUIST! The possibilities are limitless!
Thumbnail: A la “Sphere,” Carla Guigino is a federal agent who dedicated her life to making plans for Worst Case Scenarios, and building teams to call to duty in said scenarios. When an alien signal designed to reprogram human DNA appears over a Navy ship at sea, Guigino is called to Washington to implement plan Threshold; the plan she wrote for the event of an alien invasion. She comes with her very own clueless nerd (this one’s a curly haired hacker conspiracy theorist, to offset “Bones”‘s curly haired hacker PhD student or “Numb3rs” Krumholtz’s curly haired math teacher), a tough-jawed marine, and the aforementioned Brent Spiner and a midget that make the show oh so worth watching. Seriously, the midget (Peter Dinklage) linguist is the best bitter brilliant not-a-team-player scientist to hit media since those guys who worked with Bruce Willis in “Armageddon.”
Invasion: SNK likes this show because it’s really secretly a show about the vicissitudes of blended families, masquerading as a pseudo-genre show about aliens. Really, the crazy Everglades stepfamiles that make up the ensemble are absolutely the reason to watch, from the scruffy conspiracy theorist brother-in-law (“It’s an EBE! It’s an EBE!”) to Kari-Matchett-of-Cube-2 as the wild-eyed blonde doctor who just might be under her husband’s weird alien spell. The kids act like kids, the stepparents act like stepparents, and the politics of Homestead, FL, are secondary to the politics of a family with stepdads and stepmoms and stepkids all struggling to feel safe after the scary (and all-too-real-looking) hurricane.
Thumbnail: There’s a hurricane in Florida, after which mysterious bolts of light fall from the sky, land in the Everglades and swim away. Two families, joined by divorce and including (usefully) a doctor, a newscaster, a park ranger and a sheriff, survived the hurricane and had their share of strange encounters with the alien lights, which they will likely spend most of this season coming to understand. Like Lost, and unlike most of the other new-genre shows, Invasion is careful not to tell too much; the story of the alien (?) is vague at best, and used only to add color to the more important story of the family and social dynamics in this sleepy Everglades town.
As for comedies, I’m watching “How I Met Your Mother” and “Kitchen Confidential” and so far they’re both very worthy heirs to excellent sitcoms lost and gone. “Kitchen” could be the next Sports Night, if it smarts up a little, and “How I Met” is already the best heir to “Friends,” but even better because it’s got Neil Patrick Harris and Alyson Hannigan in. Neil Patrick Harris is the best thing to hit sitcoms since Zach Braff, I tell you whut.
I gotta go back to work now.