Thursday, July 26, 2007

Summer TV

This Summer has seen a lot of ambitious TV shows debuting, mostly on cable. Here's a quick look at a few of them.

Mad Men (AMC): A look at the advertising world of the early '60s, when casual racism and sexual harassment were still an accepted -- even expected -- part of office life. But the world was beginning to change; the big quandary of the debut episode, for example, was how to sell a client's cigarettes after health reports had begun linking smoking to cancer.

Jon Hamm (as Don Draper, our "hero," for lack of a better word) looks like a big slab of beef, but he generates an oily charm and a certain vulnerability that ground the show, even when he's storming out of a meeting because his client, a woman, and a Jewish woman, at that, dared to disagree with him. Vincent Kartheiser (from Angel) plays Don's junior colleague, Pete; John Slattery (from Ed and Desperate Housewives) plays Don's boss, Roger. I don't much care for either of those actors, normally, but they work here, much better than I've ever seen them. Elisabeth Moss (from The West Wing) and Christina Hendricks (this month's Object of My Affection) round out the cast as, respectively, Peggy, the new, not-as-naive-as-she-seems secretary to Don, and Joan, the worldly and battle-weary head of the secretarial pool. I also enjoyed Bryan Batt as Salvatore, an ad-man who reveals himself, if you're paying attention, as a closet case from his very first sentence. The relative subtlety of his introduction is undermined by increasingly blatant slips later in the episode, but he's still a character with plenty of promise.

It's a solid cast, and the show conveys very well both the perceived glamour of the advertising world of that era, and the decay at its core. Don Draper is the audience's focal point, yet he's a liar -- but a clever, amusing one; a racist and a sexist -- but that was just the era he lived in, right?; and an adulterer -- but one who clearly loves his wife and children. I don't really like him, but he's got my attention. As does the show. This looks like the biggest winner of the Summer crop so far.

Damages (FX): Glenn Close's highly-promoted return to TV, following what should have been her Emmy-winning turn on The Shield a couple seasons back -- if the Emmy voters would only watch The Shield. Close plays Patty Hewes, a high-powered barracuda of a litigator, for whom any dirty trick is fair play. Rose Byrne plays Ellen, the new recruit to Patty's team. The big case Patty is currently attacking is Arthur Frobisher (an awesome Ted Danson), who (allegedly!) screwed his employees out of their pensions, Enron-style.

The episode begins with a bloody and shock-stricken Ellen staggering down the sidewalks of New York; we then flash back and forth from her subsequent arrival at the police station to the events of six months ago, when she first hired on with Patty. Some intriguing mysteries are developed, but there are a couple of flaws that are keeping me from fully investing in the show. For one, Ellen is supposed to be a super-brilliant law school grad the top firms are vying over, but Byrne is so vacant and bland, the effusive praise lavished on her seems ridiculous. When Patty tells her she can see that Ellen's mind is always working, I laughed out loud. Byrne is as convincing as a genius lawyer as Denise Richards was as a genius nuclear scientist in The World Is Not Enough, or Tara Reid was as a genius anthropologist in Alone in the Dark. And secondly, Close's Patty is not merely manipulative or tough-as-nails or what have you; she's flat-out evil. Turns out Patty only hired Ellen because Ellen's future sister-in-law has a connection to Frobisher she can exploit. That's not the evil part. This is: to convince the sister-in-law to testify, Patty has her dog butchered, and frames Frobisher for it. Yikes. Am I really supposed to root for her over Frobisher? Do I really want to spend time with any of these people? I'll probably check out one more episode, but this first one, despite a few great actors and some interesting plot threads, left me a bit cold.

Eureka (Sci-Fi): Now in its second season, this clever, funny show, about a town full of super-geniuses and the average Joe sheriff trying to keep them in line, is a pure delight. While many other Summer shows seem to be trying to "out-dark" the other, upping the antes in sex, violence, and overall grimness, Eureka is sunny and lightweight. I mean, I've got nothing against sex and violence. More sexy violence, that's my motto! But it doesn't all have to be like that. There's room for shows like Eureka, too, and I'm glad.

The Kill Point (Spike): I may have spoken too soon; rather than Mad Men, this riveting bank hostage drama, on frickin' Spike TV, of all places, may have the highest potential for greatness this Summer. John Leguizamo, who can be so awesome (but, sadly, so often is not -- The Honeymooners, What's the Worst That Could Happen?, Spawn, The Pest, Super Mario Bros., etc.), is the leader of a group of ex-soldiers who execute a military-precision bank robbery. They're a hair's breadth from a clean escape when some unforeseen complications arise, and they have to retreat back to the bank. The robbery has now become a hostage crisis. Enter Donnie Wahlberg as the star police negotiator (who is oddly, but humorously, obsessed with proper grammar), and Tobin Bell (Wahlberg's co-star in Saw II and Saw III, weirdly enough) as a local bajillionaire whose daughter is one of the hostages, and who is trying to get Wahlberg removed from the case, and the real drama begins.

The two-hour premiere episode featured a great deal of thrilling gunplay action, as well as some intense head-to-head confrontations between Leguizamo and Wahlberg, neither of whom you might immediately think of as "action star," but both of whom excel in their respective roles. The clump of hostages don't quite measure up to the talents of the two leads (or the intense Bell), but the chess game Leguizamo and Wahlberg play with their fates is utterly engrossing. So far, this is shaping up to be a worthy successor to Dog Day Afternoon, with its similar bank robber who wins public sympathy with his charismatic grandstanding. I know, I know -- it's frickin' Spike TV. But seriously, it's damn good! Check it out.

Random IMDb fact (or possibly "fact"): Donnie Wahlberg is a distant relative of Madonna and Halle Berry. Wait, what? That's so crazy it can't be true. Or can it??? That would mean Madonna and Halle Berry are somehow related. That makes me inexplicably sad and tired.

Saving Grace (TNT): This much ballyhooed introduction of Holly Hunter to series television seemed to be the most promising of any of the new Summer shows. And it was one of the most disappointing to me. I love Holly Hunter; she's one of those actresses who seem to grow even sexier with age, like Julia Louis-Dreyfus, or Katey Sagal (if you are inclined to disagree, you can just shut your piehole, posthaste). She plays Grace Hanadarko, a police detective scraping the bottom in her personal life: she's a drunk; she's having an affair with a married man, who happens to be her her partner on the force (played by Kenneth Johnson, the late, much-lamented Lemonhead from The Shield); she's belligerent and reckless. And then, she kills a man in a drunk driving accident.

Or does she? As she tries to revive the man, she begs God for help. And lo, the angel Earl appeared unto her, spitting his chaw into a Mountain Dew bottle. Seriously: that's what happens. An actual angel (Leon Rippy, Deadwood's Tom Nuttall), with feathery wings and a cheek full of tobacco, speaks to her, telling her she's going to hell unless she straightens out her act. And when he disappears, Grace finds that the man she ran down has disappeared; her car accident never happened.

Or did it? (Am I overdoing the rhetorical questions?) Despite the angel magicking away the bloodstains on her blouse, she finds a spot of blood behind a button. She has her police scientist friend (Laura San Giacomo) analyze the blood, and finds it belongs to a Death Row inmate (Bokeem Woodbine), who couldn't possibly have been out of prison for Grace to hit with her car in the first place. When she speaks to the prisoner, he tells her that he's been visited by the angel Earl as well, and gives her a few pointers.

It's a tremendous cast of actors. And, despite my atheism, I can appreciate a work of fiction relying heavily on the Bible, such as The Last Temptation of Christ (both the Kazantzakis book and the Scorsese movie), or Joan of Arcadia, or even Jesus Christ Superstar. But where Saving Grace fails is by being way too ham-fisted and clumsy. Earl's preaching to Grace lacks any subtlety or nuance -- it's just, "Be good or God'll getcha!"

It's not bad enough they gave him the gimmick of chewing tobacco -- the whole character is a gimmick, and a bad one. And when Grace's situation is accepted instantly at face value by San Giacomo (with neither of them wondering, for instance, why an all-powerful angel would leave DNA evidence on Grace's shirt after making everything else about the car accident disappear), and then Woodbine begins matter-of-factly discussing the ins and outs of angel interactions, any chance I could suspend my disbelief long enough to invest in the situation was completely jettisoned. Really, the show would work much better if it were just about messed-up Grace, and her efforts to redeem herself, without the angel showing up, rendering it all cheap and phony.

The last straw, for me, was the final revelation that the whole show would be riding the coattails of the Oklahoma City bombing -- it's how Grace's sister died, and she blames herself. Seriously, appropriating an act of terrorism to play on an audience's sympathy... who does Saving Grace think it is, Rudy Guliani?

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