Sunday, October 02, 2005

TV: Inconceivable and E-Ring

A couple quick takes on what are probably the most feminine and masculine new shows of the season: Inconceivable and E-Ring.

Inconceivable takes place in a fertility clinic run by partners Ming-Na and Jonathan Cake. Ming-Na is the administrator, I guess, and Cake is the doctor with a god complex who helped her conceive her child years ago. She's meant to be the emotional, sensitive one as opposed to Cake's rakish, unfeeling character, but she comes across as borderline incompetent, pushing buttons and stirring up trouble where she shouldn't.

There's some cute stuff in the pilot; most of the supporting cast are decent and likeable, including Angie Harmon, who shows up for about two minutes near the end of the episode. But there are about 18 stories too many -- there's the white couple whose surrogate mother bears a black baby, there's the clinic employee who wants to adopt that baby, there's the Marine who's getting the frozen eggs of his combat-killed wife implanted in her sister, there's the member of the gay couple who stalks their child's surrogate mother to make sure she's eating right, there's Ming-Na's boy who wants to meet his sperm donor father, there's the minister and his wife who have failed to conceive, there's Cake and the nurse he dumps, who seeks revenge by switching Cake's seed for the minister's, there's Cage and Angie Harmon's past romantic history... it felt like watching an entire season crammed into one hour.

It's light and well-acted, but the writing gets a little awkward and clumsy, and there are way, way too many characters and stories to make for a satisfying viewing experience. It's decent, but I won't be tuning in again.

E-Ring felt refreshingly straightforward following Inconceivable. There's just one main story driving the action: Benjamin Bratt, a brash young Major assigned to the "E-Ring" section of the Pentagon, fights to get a U.S. Intelligence operative rescued from China. Dennis Hopper plays Bratt's boss, a Colonel who listens to Blue Oyster Cult and Lynyrd Skynyrd in his downtime, and hides his gambler's sheet of NFL point spreads in a Top Secret folder. Hopper's a veteran of how the system works and how the bureaucracy must be played, but Bratt's fresh from the field and not about to let red tape stop him, even if he has to use his CIA girlfriend's insider knowledge to cut some corners.

I liked both Bratt and Hopper, who keep the tone light but compelling. And I liked that the action is split between no-nonsense military field operations and the frustrating political machinations of the Pentagon. There's probably a little too much of the bureaucratic, political hurdling; the show does its best to keep the drama character-oriented, but when the high dramatic point of the episode is a montage of signatures on a standardized mission request form, presented as momentously as the signing of the Declaration of Independence, you have to smile and shake your head. This is military drama in the new millennium?

I might check out another episode or two of this (depending on what it's up against). The characters are simple but not shallow or stupid, the motivations are understandable and direct, the action (primarily centering in this first episode around the covert operative's escape from Shanghai) is exciting and believable, and there are no soap opera or conspiracy theory elements muddying the waters. It's just a straight-up action drama. Those generally succeed or fail on the strength of its stars, and I think Bratt and Hopper might be enough to make it work.

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