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Old Shows, New Shows

October 24th, 2006

Well, the alien-invasion-style series have all died off, it seems. Threshold was the first to go (formulaic, but interesting). Invasion died off next (too soap-operaish for my tastes). And Surface (very promising, at least it was) seems to have quietly passed away, without even word of its cancellation, as far as I can find at least. Its star, Lake Bell, is back on Boston Legal. At least The 4400 is still around, even though it runs only 13 or 14 hours per year.

The West Wing finished its run last year, and Commander in Chief died in the cradle (rightly so–it could have been very good, but was very poorly written). CinC might actually come back for a TV movie sendoff next year, though. Stargate SG-1 will end after the current season, after ten years on the air. And despite its promise, Rome seems to have been a one-shot, unless HBO is going for a very long-delayed second season.

In the meantime, I have found some other new series, ranging from the very iffy to the good enough to watch.

Torchwood is the latest, just having premiered. A British series, it’s a spin-off of the most recent Doctor Who. It takes from several Doctor Who episodes over the past two years. The lead male character, Captain Jack Harkness, was introduced in the 2005 Doctor Who two-parter, The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances; he was introduced as an American time traveling mercenary, last seen in WWII (an appearance which is referenced to in the premier). He is presented in Torchwood as an immortal being of sorts with a mysterious past. The name “Torchwood” comes from the Doctor Who episode Tooth and Claw, where Rose and the Doctor meet with a not-amused Queen Victoria at the Torchwood estate; when Victoria sees the Doctor as a danger, she establishes Torchwood as an institute to collect extra-normal evidence and technology–an institute which shows up in the second-season two-part finale, Army of Ghosts and Doomsday, where Torchwood is presented as a highly advanced super-secret agency with all the latest in alien tech.

The series Torchwood establishes that there are different branches of the institute, the one we encounter consisting of just five people, led by Captain Jack; their digs are dingy and dungeonesque, in stark contrast to the modern high-rise fortress shown in Doctor Who. But the goofy alien technology is very Doctor Who-ish. The main character of the new series is Gwen Cooper, a constable who gets drawn into Torchwood as a newbie and has to learn the ropes.

The show has the same entertaining edginess of the new Who, and shows promise; I’ll keep my eyes on this one.

Next newest is Heroes, which is sort of a TV rip-off of X-Men with a smattering of The 4400 (also derivative of X-Men). Just like X-Men, Heroes has humans evolving super powers, a different superpower for each mutant. A central character is Mohinder Suresh, a non-mutant (so far as we know) scientist from India whose father was onto the whole mutation thing, but got killed by forces unknown. The father might not actually be dead–one photo of him was shown, and it was Erick Avari–a character actor (from the Stargate movie and TV shows, and countless TV appearances) of enough note to not just be limited to a photo reference (IMDB actually has him listed as guest-starring in three upcoming episodes). There is also a mystery agent going around collecting the mutants and doing… something with them–and discovers his daughter is a mutant. She’s a cheerleader who can’t be killed, despite fatal falls, running into a burning train wreck, and having a tree branch impale her skull. The last gets her dead only long enough for the coroner to have partially dissected her; pulling the branch out of her brain brings her back to life. You can see that this series has a dark edge to it.

Other “heroes” include Hiro, a Japanese otaku salaryman, into Star Trek and The X-Men (no hiding of borrowed influences here) with a high-pitched voice and goofy character; Hiro can bend space and time, stopping the clock or moving to other continents or time periods by squinting real hard. Nathan Petrell is running for Congress when he finds out he can fly; his brother Peter thought he could, but in actuality, he just borrows the powers of mutants he gets near to. One of them is Isaac Mendez, an artist who can paint the future, but only when high on heroin. And Niki Sanders is an Internet sex-cam model in Las Vegas who owes the mob big-time, with a little boy whose father is in jail. Her “power” is, apparently, to have a split personality, her alter-ego being able to rip men apart while Niki is blacking out. Apparently the series will introduce more “heroes” as time goes on; making a late appearance is Matt Parkman, a mind-reading cop.

The series is building up to a climax involving a mutant villain named Sylar who, among other things, impales victims with household objects, and maybe removes mutants’ brains from their skulls. Or maybe that’s some other villain, who may or may not be responsible for a nuclear bomb destroying New York, an event foreseen by two different characters. Stay tuned.

Less science-fictiony is Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. This show has the most promise, and may be the most short-lived. Aaron Sorkin is commanding this one like he did with Sports Night and The West Wing, and it is classic Sorkin. Not so much walk-and-talk stuff that Tommy Schlamme was known to bring in The West Wing, but the Sorkin story-and-dialog touch is unmistakable. If the series survives, it’ll be great. However, it’s not getting off to a blazing start, and could be an unfortunate early casualty of the season.

The show is about a Saturday Night Live-style weekend comedy skit show. In the first episode, Judd Hirsch guest stars as a Lorne Michaels type of executive producer who melts down on live TV (like Peter Finch’s character in Network) after he sees the suits and the censors reduce his show to mindless pap. A new network president promises to remake the show and brings in Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) and Matt Albie (Matthew Perry), a close writer-producer team who left Studio 60 a few years ago, and now can’t continue their successful new career of making movies for two years because Danny violated a drug probation; being free, they accept the challenge of re-making Studio 60. Sorkin’s writing is top-class as usual, but one unfortunate side issue is that Sorkin can’t write sketch comedy nearly as well as he can write good drama; the skits on the show don’t come across as very funny.

Other characters include Timothy Busfield (also a producer) as the show’s chief engineer (or whatever you call it); Sarah Paulson as the star of the show and Matthew Perry’s love interest (they broke up years ago, thus creating the present sexual tension), Evan Handler as a chief writer who pissed off Matt Albie years back, and D.L. Hughley and Nathan Cordry among the show’s leading talent.

Strangely similar in concept, 30 Rock is about a late night comedy skit show run by Tina Fey, whose job is overrun by a new network executive played by Alec Baldwin, who takes the woman-driven “Girlie Show” and makes a half-insane, controversial black male comedian the new star of the show. 30 Rock is off-the-wall, and, frankly, not very funny at all. I got through the premiere, but couldn’t watch through the whole second episode. Alas, this bad show will probably out-survive Studio 60, unless there’s any tastefulness left in TV.

One more new show is Ugly Betty, a series brought in by Salma Hayek, who cameos in every episode as a star in a telenovela, a job she used to have some time ago. Ugly Betty is based upon the hit Colombian telenovela, Yo Soy Betty, la Fea (“I Am Betty, the Ugly”)–this is even playing on TV in Japan. The story is about Betty, an unattractive young woman with blue braces and a terrible fashion sense. A Latina from Queens, she aspires to work in the magazine industry. She is initially brushed off just because of her looks, until she is hired because of her looks–the publisher of a fashion magazine called “Mode” has installed his playboy son as the new chief editor and wants him to have an assistant he won’t be tempted to have sex with. Betty stands out like a sore thumb among the ultra-chic snobs that populate most of the staff.

The melodrama has two arenas: Betty’s home and her work. At home, there is her charming father, her attitude-prone sister, and her smart young nephew, who adores high fashion. There is also her boyfriend, who in the first episode runs off with the manipulative neighborhood slut, who also figures strongly in the show. The boyfriend must win his way back into Betty’s heart after the slut dumps him after using his employee discount to buy a plasma TV.

Then there is the office: Betty’s boss, Daniel, after initially trying to make Betty quit, comes to respect her, but they are pitted against conniving office staff. The chief villain is played by Vanessa Williams, who should have gotten the editor’s job and regularly schemes to sabotage Daniel, with her effete, sycophantic assistant Marc, and the snooty, slutty receptionist, Amanda. Williams’ character reports to Daniel’s mother, former editor of “Mode,” thought to be dead in a car crash perhaps engineered by Daniel’s father, who is assisted by a shady henchman.

Usually I would not watch stuff like this, but I heard some good things about it and decided to give it a try. So far, I like it; it has just the right balance of goofy comedy and good storyline, and doesn’t go too far off the dramatic edge into melodrama.

That’s it for the present. Along with other continuing shows, it’s more than enough to fill up one’s free time…

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  1. Kev the Butcher
    October 25th, 2006 at 14:31 | #1

    … and you knew, of course, that ‘Torchwood’ is an anagram of ‘Doctor Who’ — now, just what could that mean? ;>

  2. Luis
    October 26th, 2006 at 00:00 | #2

    Actually, I did not know that! Very interesting… but I have the feeling it doesn’t mean anything. After all, the character is not even called “Doctor Who” in the show–only “The Doctor.”

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