JOHN OSTRANDER: That’s A (TV) Wrap Part 1
It’s May which means, out in TV-land, it’s the final sweeps period of the season. Yeah, a few of the final shows have yet to air but I might as well look back on what I liked/disliked over the past season. This may not be what you watched, liked or disliked but, hey, it’s my column.
Battlestar Galactica. I finally succumbed and started looking in on the series. I’d been afraid that it would be too dense at this point, that there was too much backstory, to be accessible to late viewers like myself but I found I was able to pick things up as I went. Yes, it would be better if I knew more of the backstory and I plan on picking up the DVDs but I’ve gotten into the series. I’m not certain why finding Earth is such a good idea for these people or why so much of their culture seems to be very post-1940’s American culture but I’m willing to hang in and find out. Yes, I liked it overall.
Boston Legal. A tip of the hat to ComicMix head inmate Mike Gold for getting me to watch this series. Mary and I started watching late last season and it’s become one of our favorites. I was resistant because I’m not really a big David E. Kelley fan but this show causes me to laugh out loud. It makes brilliant use of some old pros – James Spader, Rene Aubenjois, Candace Bergen, and the simply amazing William Shatner – as it talks about current issues, goes consistently over the top, touches the heart and simply entertains me more than almost any other show in a given week.
Deadwood. Big fan of this show and I can’t tell you how pissed off I am that HBO didn’t let it continue. Yeah, they talked about two movies to finish it up but a) that’s not the same and b) I haven’t heard that those are actually going forward. Creator David Milch had said that the concept was the advance of civilization as seen through the focus of the town of Deadwood, South Dakota, originally a boom camp for the gold found in the hills nearby. Real historical figures intermingled with totally fictional creations much the same way real history was mingled with a lot of inventive writing (and serious profanity). It’s not a technique unknown to me; I did the much the same thing when I wrote my historical graphic novel The Kents. The show boasted some fine performances topped by Ian McShane’s incendiary Al Swearingen.
All that said, I have to confess that Season 3 turned out to be a disappointment to me. The through line was the gradual take-over of the town by George Hearst (given a dynamite performance by Gerald McRaney). Hearst was an actual historical figure, the farther of William Randolph Hearst who, in turn, was a model for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and that was both the attraction and the problem. The actual Hearst himself never visited Deadwood, so far as my researches showed, although he did wind up owning several big mines there.
The problem in Season 3, for me, was that it was headed for an almost apocalyptic showdown between Hearst and his men versus the citizens of the town who, although usually at violent odds with one another, were brought together by a common threat. The season built in tension to what should have been a staggering climax and then – Hearst simply decides to leave town. Go on to his next location. The tension dribbles away.
At this point, Milch knew there wasn’t going to be a fourth season so why not burn Deadwood down? Towns did in those days and then they re-built. The production company weren’t going to be able to keep the set intact anyway. IMO, Deadwood deserved better both from HBO and its creator. I think it was Hitchcock who said that if you’re going to prominently show a gun to the audience at the start of the movie, it needs to go off before the end of it. Deadwood misfired and that’s a damn shame because, at its best, the show was incredible.
Heroes. A lot of my comic book writing career has been spent tilling the superhero field. I like playing with people who have powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal folk and I think I’m reasonably good at it. I’m one of the ones who holds with the notion that these are the descendants of the heroes of mythology, of the demi-gods and goddesses who are sent on quests or do great deeds and so on.
I like watching to see how the stories, the myths that create them, are re-told and re-interpreted. It’s one of the reasons I prefer Smallville to Superman Returns. The former re-imagines Superman as if he came to Earth in our time. The movie tries to re-create a version of Superman consistent with the first two Superman movies back in the 80s. It was dated before it began.
Heroes conceptualizes metahumans for today. Tights and costumes are gone although each character has a “look” – meaning I wonder how often they change their clothes. The powers are not necessarily new but the real question is not the power but who has it and how is it applied. Yes, I’ve seen some of the story elements before – one especially from Watchmen and the other from the X-Men story “Days of Future Passed.” But there have been twists that have caught me with my mouth open and that’s not easy to do, friends – I’ve been in the game a long time and can see plot wrinkles when they’re just a pucker.
The show has a large cast and lots of characters and, no, not all of them or the actors playing them work for me. OTOH, you have ones that work brilliantly like Hiro Nakamura (Masi Ota). You also have really nasty bad guys such as the serial killer Sylar who help drive the plot engine. Peripheral characters that come, go, or die. There are characters who fall between good and evil and you’re not certain how they will play out at the end.
There are other really smart elements to the series, such as the catchphrase of “Save the cheerleader; save the world.” Over the top, yeah, and gloriously so. You also have the concept that the entire season is one long story and that with the season finale, there would be a payoff – unlike ABC’s Lost which doesn’t seem to have any idea where it’s going. The next season, supposedly, will be the start of another story. Same characters, new characters, a mixture of both? We’ll see.
The big question going into the season finale, and important to the series’ long range survival, is – did it deliver? Was the story wrapped up? Was it satisfying? In my view – mostly yes. [Spoilers follow.]
Caveats: the main bad guy seemingly is still alive; he should have been dead dead dead. The solution to the final crisis I did see coming. I’m not certain how the Evil Cabal knew the explosion was coming or why it couldn’t be stopped or why it was such a good thing. And there’s a few other nits I could pick. But primarily, the finale does bring the season to a successful close and there was a lot of suspense. Above all, it does hold up a heroic ideal – that being a hero is a good thing, worth aspiring to, and that there are important ties of love and family and friendship. There is courage and a willingness to sacrifice including your own life.
We’ve had a lot of deconstructive superhero comics, questioning the very nature of heroes and heroism in the past few decades. I’ve done plenty of them myself. In Heroes, even the people with extraordinary powers come from ordinary lives. The powers don’t make them heroes; they have to learn how to become that. They have to choose to do that and the choice is often difficult and not straightforward. It celebrates heroism. I like that.
Heroes did a lot of things right this season and has shown the capacity of learning from the things it didn’t do so right. They lost a lot of their viewers following an extended break. Their aim next year is to tell the story straight through and then have Heroes: Origins which would spotlight new characters for the following season. Viewers would get to vote on which one goes into Season Three, combining scripted narrative with elements of American Idol. Smart. The Heroes website is also fun to explore and has plenty of things to suck in the fan. Well done and also smart.
To sum up: as a fan I liked the series and as someone who writes superheroes, I was really impressed.
House. This one stars Hugh Laurie as Dr. Greg House, world’s top diagnostic physician and worst excuse for a human being, all wrapped up into one. House is brilliant, a genius, but also a pill-popping addict, a bully, arrogant, abusive of everyone around him (especially his patients), frequently cruel and, thanks to Laurie’s amazing performance – compellingly watchable. Until this season.
For a good part of the season, House found himself up against a hard-nosed cop – played with quiet and effective menace by David Morse – who was as nasty as House was and as big a bully. And he had the law on his side. And he was ready to put House in jail. Only the perjury of House’s boss kept that from happening. House learns – nothing from all this. Nor is he grateful to any of who stood by him although it nearly cost his best friend his practice and his subordinates their ways of living.
I watch a lot of shows that have creeps as the central character (and, no, I don’t really want to know what that says about me, thank you very much) but they have to keep me interested in that creep, even perversely rooting for him in some fashion. I no longer really care about Greg House. I tune in now and then but I can see that drifting away as well. It’s not the performances; ultimately, it’s the writing. The show ups the ante on how despicable House can be until, finally, I don’t care about him or his supporting cast or what happens to them. It’ll be back next season; I doubt if I will.
The Mac/PC Commercials. These are commercials I actually turn the sound up for when they come on the screen. Okay, yeah, I’m a big Mac user so I’m prejudiced but they’re very funny, they get their point across sharply, and are extremely well acted. The concept, the look – all very idiosyncratic, all very identifiable when they come on. To my mind, that is great advertising. And John Hodgman (PC) is brilliant.
There are some other shows on which I want to comment that haven’t quite ended yet (such as The Sopranos) so I’ll do another installment of this a little further down the line. Now, it’s time for me to get away from that screen and get out in the open air. It’s summer and time to be outdoors and. . .
Wait. Is that the new season of Doctor Who starting up?
Writer / actor / playwright John Ostrander is man behind the typewriter at such vaunted comics as GrimJack, Suicide Squad, Star Wars: Legacy, Munden’s Bar and Batman. His own personal blog is at http://www.comicscommunity.com/boards/ostrander/