Well, the fall television season has begun, which means I’ve been watching the return of my favorite series and the premiere of new shows that have tickled my interest. Here’s a rundown.
Timeless (Mondays, 10 P.M., NBC)
Everyone who reads this column regularly knows that I’m a nut for alternate history and time-travel stories, so of course I was going to check out Timeless, which premiered last week, October 3… and, of course, I missed it. So on Saturday I logged onto Hulu and caught up.
The premise is a familiar one to science fiction geeks like me – what happens to our present if someone goes back and either deliberately or accidentally changes the history we know? This is best illustrated, at least for me, by Ray Bradbury’s classic and beautifully written “A Sound of Thunder,” in which a big game hunter travels back to the Jurassic era to stalk a Tyrannosaurus Rex, accidentally kills a butterfly, and returns to his present to find the world he knew has changed, both in subtle and overt ways. Although the term was not coined by physicists and other scientists until the 1960s by chaos theory pioneer Edward Norton Lorenz – when he noted that small changes in the initial conditions of hurricane formation would change the outcome of that hurricane, i.e., time of formation, wind speed, path – this has become known as the butterfly effect, which essentially states that even an infinitesimal alteration in primary conditions will change the outcome. (This leads me to believe that Lorenz read “A Sound of Thunder” at some time in his life; if he hadn’t – one small change – the phenomenon might be called something else.)
When a secret government-funded time travel machine is stolen by a “bad guy,” a misaligned team is assigned to follow him and stop his nefarious plans to alter the time line: a historian, a Delta Force soldier, and a computer coder. But how can they follow him? Turns out that there is an earlier, less sophisticated time machine, an alpha model, that has been kept in mothballs “just in case” [a rescue was needed]. This more primitive device can take the team to the same time period, but can’t lock on to the exact coordinates of the newer version.
Yes, it’s a big “coincidence.” But what the hell – without this, uh, contrivance, there would be no show, right?
There is a lot in Timeless that we have seen before. The facility where the time machine is kept looks like every secret government facility ever seen on The X-Files; the machine itself sits isolated in front of a bank of monitors and computers manned by technicians as in Stargate (and Stargate-SG1); and the gears of the apparatus turn and spin around the command pod as it warms up for its leap, reminding me of the “worm-hole opener” in Contact. Oh, and speaking of leaps, I kept thinking of Quantum Leap, too. But by now, if you’re any sort of fan of science fiction, it’s not so much the ingredients. To misquote another time traveler by the name of Clara Osborne, the soufflé is the soufflé.
The first jump is to May 6, 1937, the day of the Hindenburg explosion. ‘Nuff said, for those of you who haven’t seen Timeless, yet; although I will add a little spice by saying that the “bad guy” may not be so bad after all.
Also, Timeless plays with butterflies.
All in all, I enjoyed it, but like I said, I’m an easy mark for time-travel stories.
Designated Survivor (Wednesdays, 10 P.M., ABC)
From Wikipedia: “In the United States, a designated survivor (or designated successor) is an individual in the presidential line of succession, usually a member of the United States Cabinet, who is arranged to be at a physically distant, secure, and undisclosed location when the President and the country’s other top leaders (e.g., Vice President and Cabinet members) are gathered at a single location, such as during State of the Union and presidential inaugurations. This is intended to guarantee continuity of government in the event of a catastrophic occurrence that kills the President and many officials in the presidential line of succession. If such an event occurred, killing both the President and Vice President, the surviving official highest in the line, possibly the designated survivor, would become the Acting President of the United States under the Presidential Succession Act.”
Tom Kirkland, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is watching the President deliver the State of the Union on television when an explosion rips through the Capitol building, destroying it and killing everyone inside it. Tom Kirkland, the designated survivor, is now the President of the United States.
Designated Survivor star Kiefer Sutherland is no stranger to political thrillers; as Counter Terrorist Unit agent Jack Bauer on the seminal 24, he always knew what to do and when to do it; “squeamish” was most definitely not a word in Bauer’s dictionary. But this show isn’t about President Jack Bauer; Tom Kirkland is a not a natural-born hero – far from it. Instead of immediately “manning up” and taking charge, Kirkland is overwhelmed; in the White House, excusing himself from a rambunctious and loud meeting where everyone is yelling over each other, Kirkland excuses himself, ducks into a bathroom, and throws his guts up.
And it works. Jack Bauer, as mesmerizing as he was, was a toy soldier, an antidote to an American public still reeling in shock from 9/11 (although the show was already on Fox’s schedule before that horrible day) and in need of a G.I. Joe who would take our collective revenge upon the bad guys. Tom Kirkland is an ordinary government bureaucrat, perhaps a bit more idealistic, earnest and dedicated than most, who doesn’t really fit into the cut-throat world of Washington politics; in fact, early in the first hour we learn that he’s been “shifted” from the office of HUD – read “fired” – and offered a job as Ambassador to the Canadian Coast Guard (or something like that – Kirkland wants to know if there really is a Canadian Coast Guard.) Kirkland reacts the way most of us really would, as in “What the fuck?” and “Stop the world, I want to get off!” Simply put, Jack Bauer is the fantasy; Tom Kirkland is the real deal.
Kai Penn, late of House and the real West Wing – quit acting for a time to work for the Obama administration as Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement – plays Seth Wright, a junior speechwriter for the late President whom Kirkland hires as chief speechwriter after their embarrassing meeting in the bathroom where Kirkland was puking in one stall while Wright opined on the inadequacies of the new President in another.
But Wright isn’t the only one wary of Kirkland’s aptitude for the office. Just about everyone is questioning his ability, to the point of ad nauesum, if you ask me. (Is there no one – except his family, of course – who wants to help Kirkland step up to the job?) But the biggest fly in the ointment – im-not-so-ho – of what could be an absolutely terrific series is the “General Angryman” (as Entertainment Weekly writer Ray Rahman calls him), who, at least right now, is the caricatured hawk to Kirkland’s (supposed) dove. “General Angryman” wants to display American certitude and force by bombing the shit out of anyone and everyone who has ever name-called America – specifically Iran, whose Navy is apparently making forays into the Strait of Hormuz, threatening the world’s oil supply.
Seriously, I am really hoping that the writers are throwing us for a loop, because this guy is beyond Dr. Strangelove.
I’ve seen all three episodes of Designated Survivor, and while I’m liking it, there are problems, the most important one being – again, im-not-so-ho – that there doesn’t really seem to be anyone interested in putting country before politics (well, except for Kai Penn’s character) in helping President Kirkland establish the “continuity of government” that the role of “designated survivor” is meant to do. But considering the way we were bamboozled into Iraq by a real administration that put politics before country, and the way the two current leaders of the Republican party are refusing to disavow their current Presidential candidate, again putting politics ahead of country – well, perhaps the fictional roadblocks facing the fictional President Kirkland aren’t all that, well, fictional.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (Wednesdays, 9 P.M., NBC)
SVU is now in its 18th season, and while some may say that the show has seen better days, I would argue that it has matured like fine wine. I can’t say exactly what it is about that show that makes me addicted to its current incarnation as well as all its reruns on USA network and other channels, but I am hooked on it like a patient with chronic back pain is hooked on Oycondone.
Supergirl (Mondays, 8 P.M., CW)
The Girl of Steel premieres tonight on its new network home, but who hasn’t seen the “sneak peek” on YouTube (or other web sites) featuring Kara and her cuz’?
Like so many others, I was surprised when Supergirl was announced as a CBS show; it was such an outlier for that network. Like so many others, I was, well, relieved when I heard that the CW had picked it up; not only because it wasn’t cancelled permanently from our screens, but because the CW has become a natural home for a show based on a comic book, and do I really need to specify that statement?
Here are some quotes from Entertainment Weekly’s interview with Executive Producer Andrew Kreisberg on the future of Supergirl, with my opinions thrown in for good measure:
“There is going to be a change in the show that I think is a natural progression in a show that’s growing up. We were really blessed with The Flash – The Flash came out fully formed; that show knew what it was very early on. The experience of Supergirl is more akin to the experience we had on Arrow, where we knew there was a great show in there, and every once in a while we made a great one, but it wasn’t until the back half of that first season – and certainly the beginning of season 2 – that we really felt like we had a handle of what that show was creatively. That’s how we feel about Supergirl, that towards the end of last year, the characters were really coming to life and we were really starting to tell the right stories.”
Me: No PR bullshit here, Kreisberg is absolutely right about the second half of the series.
“Now with season 2, we really feel like this show has gotten, I always say, bigger and smaller; it’s gotten bigger in terms of what we’re able to accomplish in terms of the scope of the show, but it’s also gotten smaller in terms of the characters. We are able to go to deeper places, richer places, and to some places that I think are unexpected.”
Me: Oh, boy, do I really hope that this is absolutely not PR bullshit!
“Because it was the first female superhero on TV in a long time, and then the first female superhero especially in the current explosion of comic book properties, the show had expectations to it and the show had preconceived notions, and the show had I don’t want to say limitations, but everybody had an opinion on what a female superhero should do and be and say. I think all of us collectively as a studio, as a network, as showrunners [sic], as cast, we all got locked into answering that question a lot at the early stages. “
Me: See my first column about the show. Oh, the girl was just so adorably perky. Gagged me with a spoon. If I hadn’t loved the character so much my whole life I would never had stuck with it.
“Kara will be traveling from her dimension to our dimension, ‘our’ being the world that The Flash, Arrow, and Legends lives in.”
Me: The Flash episode totally rocked!!!! Probably responsible for saving the series, and also probably responsible for the realization that Supergirl belonged on the CW. But it’s Supergirl. Not Supergirl and… Please remember that. Please don’t forget that. Please, please, please let Kara stand on her own two feet.
“…we come into season 2 and she feels like she’s got a handle on being Supergirl – it’s everybody else in her life that she feels like, ‘How can I be a girlfriend? What am I supposed to do with my career? How can I be there for my sister?’ So it’s all the Kara stuff that’s really the tough stuff early on, and that’s where Clark comes in. We say it’s like becoming a parent, where when you were a kid, your parents knew everything and then you become an adult and you’re like, ‘I’m lost, I don’t know what to do.’ You realize that neither did your parents; they were making it up as they went, they just presented themselves as knowing it all even if they were dying inside. That’s one of things that Kara says, like, ‘I know how to be Supergirl, but I don’t know how to do any of this other stuff. But Clark, he makes it look easy, he’s Superman, he’s a great reporter, he’s a great boyfriend. How does he do it?’ And Clark says, ‘I’m making it up as I go, too. It’s all about balancing it and it’s all a day-to-day thing. Just because I make it look easy, doesn’t mean that it is.’ So Kara is really growing up this season, that’s really her journey.
Me: Superman is cool. The trailer was cool. But, again, just remember that this is Supergirl. Not Supergirl and Her Cousin, Superman. There really is a lot there to explore, lots of great story possibilities. Don’t fuck this up.
“Alex is struggling with Clark being in town. It sets up this interesting dynamic where she has been everything to Kara; she’s her family, and she has a little bit of a chip on her shoulder about Clark. She loves him, he’s family and she knows he loves them, but he left Kara on their doorstep. Kara is so excited to see Clark and so excited to be with him, but it’s almost a little bit like Alex feels taken for granted, because she’s the family member who’s put in the time. It sets up an interesting conflict between her and Kara in the first couple of episodes.”
Me: This is great. But it sounds like it’s going to be resolved by the end of the second episode. No, no, no! Played right (like not focusing on it constantly, spreading it out over 22 episodes), it would make a great full-season arc.
“Really this year is about coming into one’s own and becoming who you are. In a way, all of the characters are dealing with that. Kara is certainly dealing with that at work; Winn is becoming who he is by working at the DEO; J’onn is stepping out and embracing more being the Manhunter, which is something that he spent 300 years hiding, but now he doesn’t have to hide that anymore.”
Me: But where’s Cat Grant? Oh, no! She’s been reduced to a recurring character! That totally sucks! (And I still think she knows that Kara Danvers is Supergirl.)
One story I would love to see – selfishly because it’s a favorite of mine – brought to the series is “Supergirl’s Secret Enemy,” by Jerry Siegel and Jim Mooney, and which ran from Action Comics #279, August 1961 to Action Comics #281, October 1961.
Lesla-Lar is a low-level scientist who lives in the bottle city of Kandor (Okay, we haven’t established Kandor on the show, but that could be worked around.) Already on the emotional edge, being forced to live in Kandor while watching Kara live a life not defined by the walls of a bottle drives her over the cliff; she figures out a way to switch places with her. (I forgot to mention that she looks exactly like Kara.) The process robs Kara of her memory; she believes she is Lesla-Lar while the real Lesla-Lar lives her life on Earth, assuming the role of Supergirl so successfully that everyone, including her cousin, is unaware of the old switcheroo. How will Kara escape?
The budget would probably be way too much for the show to handle, and I would hate for it to have the bare-bottom look of the adaptation of “For the Man Who Has Everything.” But it would still be a great story to run, especially during the “sweeps” ratings months.
Im-not-so-ho, of course.